Hopeful Wishing


I work four hours a day in Korea. It’s great. In the States I’d be working more than twice that to maintain the same income. Even more hours would be needed to realize the same lifestyle I enjoy here (nothing outlandish, I assure you). The Koreans with whom I work are not paid as much as I am for the same work. They work more hours than I do as well. They face similar problems to those of the US middle class, [i] especially with regards to competition for a good job, as exemplified by the fierce academic environment. 

High levels of unemployment are staggering all across the globe. At home in Minnesota, most friends of mine are able to maintain jobs, though some can’t find enough hours to make ends meet. Just a few have incomes that keep up with inflation. With regards to the nation, only the top 5% of Americans have earned enough money to keep up with the rising housing costs since 1975. The income gap widens each year[ii], as ultimately, the government serves those who keep them in office. If this were a fairy tale we would desperately need Robin Hood right about now.

Cary Elwes, won’t you save the day?
Cary Elwes, won’t you save the day?

The only things that are trickling down are diminished benefits and lack of upward mobility. Indeed, “degree inflation” encroaches the college-educated job seeker and effects future prospects for all workers.

That old interview question “where do you see yourself in five years?” is irrelevant. Nobody knows the answer to that except those who had retirement plans that they are now putting on hold, or banking executives who seem to be laughing at us, even at congressional hearings.

Crony capitalism has severe side effects. Jobs are being lost at exponential rates due to increased red tape for employers and a  slew of regulatory measures which are put into place by unelected bureaucrats.[iii] How is this our reality? What are our ever-so-vigilant media conglomerates missing?

ben2Contrary to nearly every statistic offered up by the news, here are some more facts. As of 2007, the bottom 80% of American households held only 7% of liquid financial assets.[iv] It’s a difficult number to surmise, but if unemployment rates are anywhere close to the 7.2% reported by the Bureau of Labor than 1 out of every 5 of Americans wouldn’t be relying on food stamps.

It is numbingly enraging to know we have to watch Wall Street bonuses increase year after year. This is something the media reminds us pretty constantly, so it loses its effect. There is no more shock when we hear about it night after night, for five straight years. After the “wolfs” tore apart the market in which all of us were forced to place our money,[v] they got to pay themselves off with government money- taxes we’re forced to pay but have no say in how its spent. Has anyone paid for their crimes with any time? That’s a dangerous idea according to Eric Holder. He maintains that “if you do bring a criminal charge—it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.” [vi]

Well it already has, and the fact that nobody has brought forth criminal charges shows us that the US Department of Justice has no plans to prevent it from happening all over again.

It now takes a staggering 35 weeks, on average, to find a job in America. This does not leave for much room when it comes to bargaining for salary. As well, 40% of those who are employed are through low paying jobs. This is the reality of the new “lost generation.” It’s no wonder that we are having a difficult time. There’s no way to develop or grow (as human beings must do to thrive) when living paycheck to paycheck, and 61% of employed Americans are doing just that.

C’mon Holder. Do your job. Or is this the best you've got?
C’mon Holder. Do your job. Or is this the best you’ve got?

We must help ourselves, since nobody on top is going to look out for us. I maintain that it has always been our responsibility to make decisions and learn from our own mistakes. By raising our children in loving and caring environments and allowing them to grow we can foster a better environment for morally fit leaders in the future.

We’re being held up by the banks, and the getaway car is being driven by our own government. To begin, we require a state and laws that aren’t bought and paid for.  A plutocracy will never allow for fair competition. Considering now, for the first time in history, the banks own more of US residential housing net worth than the rest of Americans combined, it may be a good time to look at alternatives.[vii]

Hopefully, we can lower our material desires as consumers instead of increasing our debt. Eventually a tide will turn, when corporations become victim to their own assaults of government collusion.  At some point company executives will be the only ones who can afford their own products. Only when it comes full circle, will this vicious cycle come to a halt.

We need a new paradigm. Working 40+ hours a week is no longer something we need to do. We must instead focus on helping each other become healthier and happier people. We’ve got the technology to allow us to live more fruitful lives. We just haven’t been utilizing it correctly (see NSA). We may find a balance if we have time to devote to creative and spiritual endeavors. There’s a huge mess to clean up here. A few jobs will be opening up along the way. Where do you see us in five years?

 

This post is guest post. For more on guest posts and how to submit pleasefollow this link

BenHaynes

Ben Haynes has resided in Seoul with his wife, Ren, since 2011, where he is regarded as a local hero. He has the foresight of a community channel televangelist. He leads with the fortitude of Aurelius. His sweat is sweet as freshly squeezed juice. Villagers whisper giddily when he walks by. He enjoys a good book and cold glass of beer.

 


[i] *http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Working_time While Koreans are now being forced to work less by law,  many have, in recent years, worked up to and beyond 60 hours a week.

[ii] 66% of the income growth between 2001 and 2007 went to the top 1%

[iii]The 2013 Federal Register. It contains over 80,000 pages of new rules, regulations, and notices all written and passed by unelected bureaucrats https://www.federalregister.gov/index/2013

[iv] BusinessInsider fdrurl.com/un2

[v] New laws are being passed to force employees to participate in company 401k plans. http://www.moneycrashers.com/new-401k-law-helps-companies-force-employees-into-saving/

[vi] New evidence sheds light. As was earlier suspected, Eric Holder is indeed, a dick http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/jan/09/financial-crisis-why-no-executive-prosecutions/?pagination=false

[vii] BusinessInsider http://fdrurl.com/un2

 

Supermarkets -v- the People?


It has been bothering me since about the time it has been instigated. It’s a simple thing that shouldn’t really get me agitated as it has very little effect on me, and in many respects it is a good principal to take. It’s just that I think it’s the wrong step and I don’t think it really solves any problems, only encourages more populist resolutions to complicated social and economic problems.

What am talking about? Sunday closing for the so-called discount stores in Korea.

Now lets establish some terminology first.

“Discount stores” are what major supermarket chains are called in Korea. These include E-Mart (part of Shinsaegae international), Homeplus (owned by Tesco, the second largest supermarket company in the world), and Lotte Mart, which are the biggest ones.

“Sunday closing” is a government regulation which has called for all “discount stores” to close on two Sundays a month, or in some cases two Wednesdays a month. The reason for this is because they were blamed by smaller businesses for taking away too much business from smaller shops and businesses which were nearby.

Now that we understand this, allow me to explain why I find this to be bothersome.

To begin with there’s the obvious inconvenience of wanting to buy something that the major supermarkets stock. I personally haven’t been overly bothered by this on many occasions, and I’ll admit that the one time it really did get to me, and is probably where the idea for this blog post came from, was on a nice Sunday afternoon when I decided to stop by Yeongtong Homeplus and pick up some tasty foreign beer.

I fancied a few warm cans of something elaborate and I was looking forward to the painstaking decision I would have to make in the aisles. When I came to the front of the supermarket the shutter was pulled down and there was a big yellow banner acorss it explaining, I imagine, that it wasn’t their fault I couldn’t buy my beer, blame the government.

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I don’t doubt that at this moment you’re thinking I’m some crazed anti-government vigilante who feels the world is against him, but this is not the case. I am not going to go into why I didn’t want Korean beer either, but if you’ve been in Korea long enough, you’ll understand. The way I see it is that as a consumer we’re being forced to buy things we don’t want to buy when there are better alternatives available.

I’m all for buying from the little guy, believe me, and I would happily choose the alternative over a major mulitnational blood sucking vampire such as Tesco any day of the week. But I’m also a consumer who has grown accustomed to buying food and products that meet a certain standard, and there’s also the added bonus of liking a bit of variety in my life also.

But there’s a little more to it than that.

One of the arugments put forward for Sunday closing was that the prices of the major supermarkets were suffocating the smaller businesses. But if you’ve spent any amount of time in the supermarkets, you can’t really argue successfully that they are in fact ‘discounted’ prices. Yes there are some discounted goods, but really can you say they are slicing a hole in the belly of the competition and watching them bleed dry on the streets? No. Maybe a pinprick would be a more apt comparison.

There is more to this picture than just prices, its the very nature of competition and the lack of innovation in the realm of small businesses. Take smaller supermarkets for example. What do they sell that would make you want to choose them over the major supermarkets? Nothing. In fact that lack of variety and bog standard middle-to-bottom of the line brands in stock are in my opinion a turn off, especially to young and middle sized families, the kind of people who go into a supermarket and drop 200,000 won in a weekly shop. Other than being a place where you can pick up something urgently in case you run out, I struggle to see what other function they can serve. Of course across the world these smaller shops suffer from the same plight, so it’s not only a Korean problem.

Before this situation with supermarkets came to light, it was another issue raised by smaller restaurants who again complained that the supermarkets where threatening their business. Around 2010 or 2011 Lotte Market announced they were selling fried chicked for around 5,000 won per portion. Compare this with the standard delivered variety costing over 10,000. You can imagine why the fried chicken restaurants went up in arms over this. Not long after this E mart copied them by selling jumbo pizzas at cut prices, and again the pizza shop fraternity went baloobas. In the end the government jumped in and put a stop to this opportunism by the considerably wealthier and resourceful supermarkets by putting a cap on the number they could sell every day.

If we take a look at the pizza and fried chicken places around Korea you can see the problems already, as there are already too many. To the average armchair enthusiast they seem to be a get rich quick scheme which doesn’t seem to be such a hot ticket any more. Pizza places seemed to be the next to follow, and recently I’ve noticed a surge in tteokboki restaurants – I suppose it depends on what’s being promoted the most at whatever franchise fair people end up going to with a sack of inheritance.

*This video will give you an idea of the problems with the fried chicken business in Korea

The propenderence of fried chicken and pizza franchises, to name a few, is a key ingredient in understanding where I’m coming from. I see that these clearly point to a lack of much needed innovation in the small business sector.

For example, if you have all your little supermarkets which are competing against E Mart and Tesco change their stock to sell organic or direct from farm fruit and veg, or high end products, or homemade/locally produced condiments (you know the kind of stuff I’m talking about) you’ll not only encourage people to shop there you encourage the wider national agricultural economy to prosper. This is just an example. Easier said than done I know.

Another avenue is to really go out of your way to provide excellent service. Take camera shops for example. If you go into a camera shop, the guy selling you the stuff is a photographer, and knows all about what you are looking at. Invariably they throw in all sorts of others freebies like bags, memory cards, and other things. Of course the supermarkets aren’t the threat to these people’s livelihood. Their situation is even more serious because they have to compete against the internet.

For the most part a lot of the people who own these places are older, don’t have a lot of money, and really lack the inclination to innovate. Perhaps though they could lease out their premisis to someone with the inclination to innovate. Retail rents are extraordinary at the best of times, but if they could do a deal where the older owner keeps his deposit down as kind of insurance while the younger person pays the rent and some, or something to that effect.

I’ve heard before that a lot of these places are only kept open by some older people because they don’t really have anything else to do, so you know, they keep plugging along. This is mere speculation of course as there are undoubtedly other social issues which may be at play which I’m unaware of.

Regardless, the main thing is that the business is busy and the people involved are all making money. I know that this will not be something that will not happen overnight, and I know that in many circumstances it will not happen at all.

Populism and complaint to the nanny state will continue on as before. If a little innovation were to come it needs to be encouraged by those in a position to do so. There’s no reason why people who are already burdeoned with inexplicably high rents need to suffer because no one wants to buy what they are trying to sell. But at the same time, if no one really wants to buy it perhaps its worth considering what it is for sale.

There is so much room for growth in Korea, despite what people might think, but it is on a micro scale. Large scale development has polarised the economy and increasingly society. If a little vision were employed perhaps we could find ourselves living in new neighbourhoods which were welcoming to all our tastes.

Nostalgia for a Despot: an Armchair Perspective of Korea’s Present


The big talking point in the land of the morning calm is undoubtedly the election of the conservative party candidate Park Geun Hye to the presidency. Park’s father is man by the name of Park Chung Hee, whose name is both revered and reviled in Korea. Park Geun Hye is a woman, but more in the vein of Margaret Thatcher, where it could be argued gender is incidental.

Park’s election has sparked plenty of talk due to her relationship with her father who ruled this nation with a very controversial iron fist for the best part of two decades in the 1960s and 1970s. While I didn’t follow the election race in too much depth, I know that Park’s victory ticked all the boxes in terms of surprise, disappointment, doom, and any other negative or positive political emotion you can think up.

Now, I rarely talk politics here as it’s not in my writ really (unless it’s Irish politics but I save that for places like twitter and pub, which is the best place for it – I wouldn’t want to go and develop a bad reputation or anything like that now would I?). In terms of international politics, as in the politics of countries I’m not from, I do my best to merely observe, as becoming too involved or concerned does little other than frustrate me, and whoever decides to troll my comment thread. There’s more to this than that though.

Four years ago when Barrack Obama was running for president I made a determined effort to step back and ignore the entire debate. I knew he presented some viable opportunities for change but at the same time he was running for the office of American president, so despite all claims of wonder he was, deep down, aspiring to be a crook and a war criminal. Now I won’t deny that I did get excited by this year’s election as, well, the whole thing was so entertaining. The most disappointing thing about the whole process was that it was real life.

That’s just how I deal with politics, and I treated the Korean election with a similar amount of interest. You might wonder why this would be the case considering I have a vested interest in the outcome, and I do – I have a job, family, and lifestyle here in Korea, as well as paying all of my taxes here – but what good would it have done? Other than me being incredibly disappointed or annoyed (about another thing) it would serve little function. Korea would continue and I would have to seek to continue on within it without a say in how this continuance happened.

Now, for a better analysis of the result of the election, I’m going to direct you to Bobster’s House (Bobsters House: The Day After the Last Day of the World), which is where I took the title for this post from, as he has a more detailed, passionate, and constructive criticism of the situation on his blog. What I am going to do now is continue to observe as best I can.

The thing about elections is, and this is something not mentioned enough in this kind of discourse, is that the result of an election, be it a landslide or decided by a few loose votes, is always a reflection of the mind of society in which we have chosen to live. Love it or hate it, this is always the case.

In the case of Park Geun Hye’s election, it’s a story of the dictator’s daughter who actively participated in the administration who has emerged as the president of the country, now a respected democracy and global player in international affairs and economics, among other complaints. This country is now a starkly different one from the one her father took charge of and it now has the laws and institutions to protect itself from another despotic regime taking over – unless the North invades of course. But does that make a difference? Perhaps. No one actually knows what is going to happen. Alas.

Yes there are going to be some serious outcomes from the new president. I believe freedom of speech and freedom of information will continue to be threatened.  I believe equality will continue to remain something to be aspired to in the future (putting it mildly). I believe the wealth gap will continue to widen. I believe that few solutions to Korea’s economic situation worth remembering will be instituted.

Society in Korea has decided that it wants this lady to rule the country, and there is little more that we can complain about. Korean society is a lot more different and diverse than the bright lights of Gangnam and this election has done well to remind us of this significant reality. I travel to the countryside quite a lot, especially into Gangwon-do and around the outskirts of Cheonan and Yongin, and there is no doubting that eclectic neon-clad districts of Seoul such as Gangnam and Hongdae are more the exception than the rule.

As The Bobster pointed out, there are now more fifty year-olds in Korea than forty year-olds; that’s more people recalling the glory of full employment and rapid economic development than those who recall the aftermath, which was at the height of Park Chung Hee’s despotism. Even members of Herself’s own family who voted for Park in the recent election used the fact that because of her father she would do a good job.

It does not surprise me so much that Park was elected as president. Korea is a conservative country, and she is from the conservative Saenuri party. In fact, it strikes me that the opposition parties have done quite well considering how conservative Korea is, both politically, but also socially and culturally.

What doesn’t seem to be being mentioned loudly enough is that Korea is such a different country from what it was. It is a different time with different demands, of which there re too many to discuss here. I don’t think enough people know this. Korea doesn’t need full employment and rapid economic development as its highest priority any longer. It needs stability and support for its population, which is overpriced, aging, and suffering increasingly from its overly competitive dynamic. The miracle on the Han River is no longer as miraculous. The Han River’s economic development is now routine to the point it has become stagnant.

Back when Korea was developing, becoming an export economy was the best option, as there were plenty of people desperate for work, food, money, and everything else society required in the latter half of the twentieth century. Now is it any different? I would say no, it is not. Korea is still an export economy and its population revolves around the survival of its key players, namely Samsung, Hyundai, LG, and possibly some of the smaller, less famous Chaebol.

If you come down to Suwon where I live you can see this. Samsung’s Digital City is located in the centre of the city, which is an old and aging one without much industry around it. Surrounding Digital city spread out across both Yongin and Hwaseong counties are at least six more large Samsung manufacturing plants, all top of the line and all make Foxconn’s Chinese production facilities look primitive. This is the core of Samsung Electronics’ manufacturing empire in Korea.

Overall Samsung employs around 100,000 people in Korea (about half its global workforce). However, the local economy’s reliance on this company is staggering. From my window I can see large construction projects being carried out in Digital City. In the Dongtan plant, there is also large construction work underway. Surrounding all these factories are companies which supply and support Samsung’s manufacturing processes. Let’s not forget the newly developed towns, such as Yeongtong where I live, new expressways, subways and buses to connect to Seoul, schools, shopping and dining facilities, and more. This kind of development has nothing to do with Korea’s economic prominence; it has everything to do with the global demand for Samsung products.

As usual, this export orientated development is no different from the 1960s when Korea fulfilled a similar role to the one now carried out by China – a manufacturer of cheap but high quality goods, but ultimately dependent on the international economy for its survival. Is Korea not any better now as it churns out televisions and mobile phones at a high rate to satiate an always hungry global consumer?

The thing is, when Lee Myoung Bak became president, it was argued that he was the right man for the job and he could reinvigorate Korea’s stumbling economy (let’s not forget that this was 2008 – a time when major European economies and the US were themselves beginning to falter). The same party’s candidate can hardly have much more revolutionary steps up her sleeve for seeing about an economic rebirth, especially for a country that is tied to the ups and downs of its buyers across the world.

What Korea needs now is a change, and a big one, across the board. The economy is just one area which needs work, but it is certainly an obvious and easy one to provoke. Korea needs to learn to innovate and it needs to become attractive to the international environment – which isn’t easy when you consider the compeititon in Asia alone is places like Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and of course Singapore.

Korea has a fantastic population of hardworking and concerned citizens who only want the best for their country. But are these people being misled? Possibly. It needs to re-educate and approach the world from a new angle. It needs to change its institutions and it needs to respect them. It has to look at itself and rely on itself more.

Changes need to be made to turn away from this old-fashioned overly dependent means of running the country to one which encourages the old to develop into the new, and one which sees its Korean identity as pivotal in its interaction with others. This is not the case now. This is merely the tip of the iceberg, and this is an iceberg that will take longer than five years to melt.

P.S. I could be very wrong about all of this.

*UPDATE* Have a read of Roboseyo’s take on the election, including a more in depth and less one sided (and despondent) perspective on the role of Park Chung hee’s role in Korea’s past and present. 

Ireland -v- South Korea


I decided I’d analyse the data out there and give a comparison betweenIreland and Korea. Make your own assumptions.

Korea – The People

Population: 48.75 million punters – Seoul 10 million punters
Nationality: noun – Korean(s)
adjective – Korean
Urbanised: 83%
Median age: 38
Life expectancy: 79
Population growth: 0.23%
Religion:  Christian 26.3% (Protestant 19.7%, Roman Catholic 6.6%), Buddhist 23.2%, other or unknown 1.3%, none 49.3% (1995 census)
Education expeditures: 4.7% of GDP

Ireland – The People

Population:  4.6 million punters – 1.1 million punters
Nationality: noun – Irishman(men),  Irishwoman(women), Irish (collective plural)
adjective – Irish
Urbanised: 62%
Median age: 34
Life expectancy: 80
Population growth: 1%
Religion: Roman Catholic 87.4%, Church of Ireland 2.9%, other Christian 1.9%, other 2.1%, unspecified 1.5%, none 4.2% (2006 census)
Education expenditures: 4.9% of GDP Continue reading

Letter from Korea, September 2010


Yongin, South Korea
9/11/10

Dear Ireland

This month I came across a small article which made the front page of a leading daily newspaper, the Joongang Daily, here in Korea. It was one of the kinds of articles that make front page headlines for one day and the next day is forgotten, and in fairness its front page location is probably the only reason that I can remember it. The other reason that I remember it and that I’m bringing it up now is that right in front of me was a statistic that placed Ireland better than Korea and undoubtedly many of the other larger economies in the world!

It is far from often that the word ‘Ireland’ finds its way onto front pages of international newspapers and it is certainly less frequent in Korean newspapers. The last time I heard of Ireland making the headlines here was in relation to the selling of pork that was contaminated with some sort of disease. This event went so far as to stir up the anti-Irish brigade over here of, hmmmm let me think, zero people. The incident however was not isolated to Korea and many countries around the world were affected, the government promptly apologised and made efforts to not make the same mistake again. Business was probably damaged but not reduced to nothing, because let’s face it, the world loves diggin’ on swine. But before that? And after?

Continue reading