Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Month: July 2012

Europe’s Long, Slow Suicide, Part XCVII

So, Germany and the IMF are now openly talking about letting Greece default and kicking it out of the euro (even though there is no mechanism in place for removing a country from the euro and no one really knows what a default will do to the region).

And, with Spain’s 10-year bond rates climbing to nearly 7.5% this morning, clearly investors don’t believe that the latest bailout plan for Spain is going to work. Just as clearly, Mariano Rajoy has no clue what is going on or how to deal with the crisis. Spain’s whole approach seems to be: delay, deny, do nothing, and wait for things to get so bad that the Germans force you to do whatever; then, you can tell your citizens that it is not your fault all these bad things are happening, the Germans are making you do them. Good times.

As it happens, I’ve been having fun reading some old economics stuff lately — kind of like the angst a teenager gets from reading Romantic poetry, but for middled-aged people — and the big thing I have noticed is how familiar all this feels. Yet again, the political, the clueless, and the spiteful is trumping the economically sound. As JM Keynes said soon after the peace of WWI:

[…] the fundamental economic problems of a Europe starving and disintegrating before their eyes, was the one question in which it was impossible to arouse the interest of the Four. Reparation was their main excursion into the economic field, and they settled it as a problem of theology, of politics, of electoral chicane, from every point of view except that of the economic future of the States whose destiny they were handling.

– Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace

UPDATE: Of course, Paul Krugman weighs in on Germany’s threat to let Greece leave the euro and makes some good points:

Once a country, any country, has demonstrated that the euro isn’t necessarily forever, investors — and ordinary bank depositors — in other countries are bound to take note. I’d be shocked if Greek exit isn’t followed by large bank withdrawals all around the European periphery.

And, just to hammer the point home:

My advice here is to be afraid, be very afraid.


New Theme

I’m trying out this new theme for the blog. While I liked the old one well enough, it was terrible at customizing, and was too small to read comfortably. Besides, this theme has a bit of pizazz.

But if anyone has any input, I’m always happy to hear from you.

Batman vs. Drunkman

The pre-release hype for the latest mega-huge Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, is reaching a peak, and so far the reviews look quite good. But I was amused to see Rises‘ rating on Metacritic at the moment, a very strong 81, still lags behind Hong Sangsoo’s mega-low-budget, rambling boozefest that is The Day He Arrives, with 84.

Was the budget for Hong’s movie enough to make one Batsuit? One day’s catering on the set of Rises?

Arg… Hard to read. Just to make things clearer, here is a close-up (note: this is Metacritic’s 90-day chart of highest-ranked movies):

Money, Big Ideas, and Civilization: A Reading List

It looks like I am going to be horribly slow in finishing my review of Doomsday Book. Sorry about that. But at the moment I am putting much of my free time into plowing through a rather large reading list for a seminar I will be attending in a couple of weeks (in the Italian countryside … nice!). The event is being organized by the Legatum Institute, a public policy institute that is perhaps best-known for its Prosperity Index. It also co-sponsored the Democracy Lab with Foreign Policy magazine.

The theme of this event is “Why Do Civilizations Flourish and Fail?”, and I’m sure we’ll have no problem coming up with a definitive answer by the end of the week. -..-

Anyhow, the reading list is a pretty good overview of the latest books on the subject, as well as some pretty tangentially related other books on naval history, neural theories, and more. I thought I would talk a bit about the books, if only to help me work out my own thoughts.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty 
-Daron Acemoglu, James A. Robinson

This book has gotten a lot of press over the last few months, and I suppose it is easy to understand — they have a very clear thesis (“inclusive” political institutions make societies grow, “extractive” ones make them die). I’m kind of surprised that Acemoglu and Robinson are university professors because at many times the book reads a lot like something by a journalist, with random anecdotes and man-on-the-street quotes that are supposed to illustrate a point, but are usually too idiosyncratic to be useful.

While the contrast between inclusive and extractive political institutions is a very interesting and useful point, Acemoglu and Robinson definitely over-rely on it, constantly reducing complex issues and historical changes to a simple inclusive/extractive binary. It’s kind of like the old saying, “When all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” And the authors do like to bash away. Jared Diamond has written an excellent analysis of their book over at the New York Review of Books, especially challenging their challenges to his own theories from Guns, Germs, and Steel. He brings far more insight into the longue durée and prehistory arguments than I can, so please check out his review.

But they do have one chapter that revolves around the difference between North and South Korea, which is something I think I know a bit more about. The authors use the Koreas as an example of how different political institutions can radically affect development.But clearly they don’t know a whole lot about Korea, aside from the usual talking points one gets from newspaper stories and introductory books. For example, they talk about South Korea’s property rights, even though, while much stronger than the North, Park Chung Hee did not have a problem walking all over property rights of individuals or corporations when it suited his interests. Nor do they have any concept of how both Koreas’ long history of state administration affects legitimacy or government efficacy. They also talk as if North Korea immediately started to fall apart because of its extractive institutions, overlooking how long North Korea seemed to be doing okay after the division of the Peninsula. North Korea was probably ahead of the South until the mid-late 1970s, and it wasn’t too terribly far behind in the 1980s — granted, that was mostly because it was being propped up by the Soviets, but, still, it was far from the mess that it is today.

Besides, anything involving North Korea really is a bit of a gimme. It’s just too much of a basketcase to be very useful for much practical analysis. You could point to any difference between the countries (professional management, say) and credit/blame it for the differences.

Another huge problem with the book is, even though it a huge emphasis into analyzing why the modern state grew out of England in the 18th century, it barely considers the Scientific Revolution. Lots of talk about the English Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, but science gets a pass. That sort of oversight drives me nuts. Plenty of countries have political revolutions (sometimes widening political power, sometimes centralizing) and several countries have had economic progress, there’s only been one Scientific Revolution. One of the most important results of modern science is the mechanistic, atomistic mindset it created, the ability to think of the world as spiritless, material matter — surely a key stage in creating modern political and economic institutions.


Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius 
-Sylvia Nasar

Nasar is most famously  for her book on mathematician John Nash that led to the movie A Beautiful Mind. Grand Pursuit is mostly a series of small biographies of some of the most important economists of the last two centuries, including Charles Dickens, Marx and Engels, Alfred Marshall, Joseph Schumpeter, Keynes, Hayek, and Samuelson. Not a lot of bit theorizing going on here (and when Nasar does venture into big ideas, it can come across as a bit clunky and forced), but the biographies are compelling and well written.

In a way, it is a bit like my own book, focusing on individuals to look at larger trends and ideas, but of course it is much stronger and broader than Pop Goes Korea. Nasar also fills her stories with the kind of personal details that, while engaging, really make me nervous as a journalist. Things like: “So-and-so looked out the window, more nervous than he had ever felt” (not an exact example, but it gives you a sense) — Do we really know so-and-so was looking out the window then? Do we really know how nervous he was? Maybe Nasar was able to dig up sources that really were that detailed, but for people that long deceased, the style makes me nervous.

Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World
-Vali Nasr

This has probably been my favorite book so far — well written and full of new information and smart insights. It helps that Nasr is from Iran and has a wide network of family, friends, and personal memories to draw from. He’s not just some academic studying a region, but he has a personal stake in the issues and an authentic, street-level view of what is going on.

Not surprisingly, he concentrates heavily on Iran (maybe about half?), and then Pakistan and Turkey get some decent coverage. The rest of the Arab world is discussed, but less in-depth.

If you have watched any Iranian cinema, read Persepolis (the comic book) or other books,  or had any dealings with Iranians, you should already know that much of the country is very different than how it is typically portrayed in the media or thought of by most people. It is far more modern and capitalist than most people in the West realize.

At its heart Nasr’s book is the anti-Why Nations Fail. Whereas Nations‘ authors believe that political institutions come first and all else follows, Nasr believes that economics come first, and political institutions tend to react to the material status of a country. He certainly does not consider Islam to be inherently conservative or medieval. Instead, he thinks that people there are not that much different than God-fearing Americans, only their history has forced them into very different circumstances. He mostly blames a century or so of colonialism and then the oppressive Kemalist governments that ruled much of the region (secular, militarist, and authoritarian) for destroying the middle class, ruining basic governing structures, and giving rise to Islamism.


The Ascent of Money  
-Niall Ferguson

I’m not finished it yet, but, on the whole, Fergunson’s book is a lot stronger than I thought it would be — much less political, like his often blustery newspaper editorials, and more solid, fact-based history. Of course Ferguson is arguing a particular point of economic view, but it does not overwhelm the subject matter.

Unsurprisingly, Ferguson’s chapter on the Rothchilds is one of the strongest (as his history of the family is considered one of the best out there). But rather than concentrate too much on personalities, Ferguson looks more at the institutions and larger aspects of money: money as credit, money as bonds, insurance, etc. His look at the financial background of World War I — how the markets did not see war coming and, only at last moments before the scope of the coming conflict was clear, completely freaked out, with all the major stock exchanges in the world shutting down within a few days — is particularly fascinating.

But when we move from history and closer to contemporary issues (and therefore contemporary politics), Ferguson’s book weakens. He is entirely too credulous about the rise of China, for example. And blaming (crediting?) China for the hedge fund and derivative explosion of the last 15 years is just bizarre — kind of like blaming TNT for an explosion, rather than the person who set and detonated the bomb. It reminds of me that Simpsons episode, “Kamp Krusty,” when Bart asks Krusty how he could lend his name to such a lousy product. Krusty answers:

“They drove a dump truck full of money up to my house! I’m not made of stone!”

You can see the episode with that quote here (around 3:50).

Ferguson’s big conclusion, about how banking and finance need more evolutionary pressure and creative destruction is a bit dubious, too. After all, even Alan Greenspan had admitted that the banks’ instincts for self-preservation are not nearly as good as he once believed.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years  
-David Graeber
Not really on the reading list, but it seemed like a good addition. Sadly, this is not the book I was hoping for, which would have been a history of debt. Instead, it is more of a grand re-theorizing of all of modern economics from an anthropological point of view — and a very political, academic-left kind of post-modern anthropology at that (i.e.: not the good kind of anthro). Apparently Graeber is some kind of famous anarchist activist, so I guess it was my fault for thinking this book might be something different than what it is.

That said, it is definitely a book with merits. Sure, it may drive you crazy two or three times a page, but Graeber also will intrigue and stimulate three or four times on that same page, so generally you come out ahead. However, unless you are inclined to believe that the last 5,000 years are all an unnecessary social construct built upon cruelty and domination, and we could transform our world into a truly free, open place by getting rid of money, then this book is probably not for you.


Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy
and the Birth of Democracy

-John Hale

Hale’s book is another total winner. Fun and endlessly insightful. He ties the cultural/political flowering of Athens into its rise as a naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. In the face of conflicts with the Spartans and the Persians, Themistocles convinces Athens to build a powerful navy of trireme vessels — oar-powered ships that could ram their way through other boats. But oars require people to power them, and the sheer number of ships in the Athenian fleet meant that pretty much all of Athens’ citizens had to spend some time at sea; and because everyone is equal when rowing and everyone rowed, Hale argues that the triremes played an important part in developing the city’s democratic, participatory character.


The World America Made
-Robert Kagan

I basically agree with Ian Buruma on this book — the US global military presence is general does more harm than good. Not because the United States is evil (generally its foreign policy seems well-intentioned), but because the US’s protection encourages many countries not to develop their own defense forces adequately. And when countries do not take responsibility for their own defense, that turns them into irresponsible children.

I did, however, like the reminder that the United States never really was that dominant internationally, even after World War II, and enemies and allies alike constantly jostled for power and influence around the world.

* * *

Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary is also on the reading list (and I downloaded it to my Kindle), but at this point I am more familiar with McGilchrist’s TED talk than his book. I hope to fix that situation soon, though. As a big Julian Jaynes nerd, it does look like McGilchrist’s work is in a similar vein.


There have also been some classics on the reading list, so it has been fun revisiting Macchiavelli’s The Prince, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds (not on the reading list, but Nasr’s book on Iran put me into a Persian sort of mood)

South Korean Dreams, North Korean Rocky, and Spanish Nightmares

– I’ve talked a few years ago about the end of the Dream Cinema, the last old-style, single-screen cinema left in Seoul. Well, after stumbling along on life support, Dream Cinema (aka Seodaemun Art Hall) finally screened its last movie yesterday, Bicycle Thief. Theater head Kim Eun-ju was apparently so upset, she shaved her head at the screening.

Dream Cinema opened in 1964 and for many years was one of the nicer theaters in Seoul. But that was quite a while ago, and it was terribly run down when I first went there in 1998-ish. Sad to see the theater go, but, still, considering it was supposed to close in 2007 or so, it had a pretty good run. Besides, who isn’t excited about a new high-rise hotel filling the Seoul skyline?

– Not only is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un apparently dating a famous singer and incorporating Disney characters into its stage performances, but now Kim is reportedly using the theme from Rocky, Sinatra’s “My Way”, and “It’s a Small World.”  All that is, of course, in addition to the North Korean accordion version of “Take Me On”:

– Meanwhile, over here in Spain, the torpid Rajoy government seems intent on running down the struggling economy any way it can. Remind me again why Spain has to undergo this sort of pain when its debt-to-GDP ratio is lower than in Germany, France, the United States, or Japan? What a crock.


Doomsday Book – Part I

At long last, I have finally started watching the Korean science-fiction triptych Doomsday Book.I wanted to watch it during my trip to Korea in May, but the film was already gone from the cinemas, even though it opened on April 20. Nice going, distributors (I think it was Lotte).

Doomsday Book is actually three short films, co-directed by Yim Pil-sung and Kim Jee-woon. Kim, of course, is one of Korea’s most highly regarded directors, knowns for constantly trying out different genres — Foul King (comedy about pro-wrestling), Tale of Two Sisters (gothic horror), Bittersweet Life (gangster noir), The Good, the Bad, the Weird (spaghetti western), and I Saw the Devil (hyper-violent and total shite).

Yim Pil-sung, on the other hand, is famous for being total box office poison. Antarctic Journal was a moody, ambient horror film about Korean explorers at the South Pole. It did not quite work, but at least it suggested possibilities and creativity. It also was one of the biggest money losers in Korea history (especially at the time it was released). Hansel & Gretel was a dark reinterpretation of the famous fairy tale. It completely did not work and suggested that the director might be really terrible (I reviewed it at my old website). After those two bombs, Yim was pretty much a filmmaking pariah, with no Korean production company or distributor willing to go anywhere near him.

But the funny thing is, in the Korean movie scene, he is pretty tight with a lot of the top Korean directors. That’s why he shows up in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host as a supporting character. And it also means that when Yim does get to make a movie, he is able to get top actors and support from Korea’s movie scene.

As I said, Doomsday Book is a triptych, with a segment about tainted food creating a zombie panic, a Buddhist robot, and a meteor crashing toward the Earth. Gord Sellar talked a lot about the film already, and, as with most things pertaining to Korean science fiction, he’s a good place to start.

Doomsday Book has been in the works for quite some time. I remember people talking about it years ago, and the Wikipedia page claims that production started in May 2006. But after Yim and Kim filmed their segments, financing fell through, and they were only able to raise the money to finish it last year.

Oh, SPOILER WARNING, of course.

So far, I have just seen the zombie segment, titled “A Cool New World,” about how a bad apple (literally) and some disgusting recycled organic matter leads to a kind of Mad Cow outbreak that created zombies. There is also a bit of a love story, although it is pretty weak and not terribly important. Mostly people eat tainted meat, then turn into zombies. There’s a lot of blood and gunk, but nothing too crazy violent and gory … In fact, I would say the most disturbing stuff are the real-life clips you see, like of pigs being pushed into pits for being killed during a hoof-and-mouth outbreak.

The amazing thing is that this was filmed in 2006, two years before the US beef freakout that shut down downtown Seoul for several weeks in 2008. Even more amazing, as Gord points out, is the film in no way blames outsiders for the plague, keeping the causes and agency totally directed at Korea. Kind of the opposite of The Host or Kim Seong-su’s coming film Flu (or, for non-s/f, Welcome to Dongmakgol).

Most of the film is, unsurprisingly, satire and social criticism, some of it quite funny and some of it silly. I’m sure I missed a lot of it, as it does come pretty fast and thick at times. There is a good long chunk that comes from a TV news-discussion program called 90-Minute Discussion, obviously a play off of KBS’s 100-Minute Discussion (100분토론). The program has a conservative woman named “Park Ho-Yeong” (actually played by Park Ho-yeong) from the “Hanauidang Best Hospital” who I bet is supposed to be Park Geun-hye of the Hannaradang conservative party (well, the party has changed names now, but that was its old name). Director Bong Joon-ho plays a progressive, wearing a casual hanbok, with a chart showing how the zombie virus outbreak coincides with conservative voting patterns. As the zombie plague gets worse, the show devolves into the host and speakers singing and playing music like from a 1980s university.

Hopefully I will get around to watching the next two segments later this week and post a few thoughts about them.

Anyhow, here’s the first trailer to Doomsday Book (with English subtitles):

Left and Right, Young and Old

Warning: Political blathering ahead.

For years, a popular saying has been something along the lines of:

If you are 20 and not a communist, you have not heart.

If you are 40 and still a communist, you have no brain.

Har-dee-har, very funny. But here’s the weird thing — even in its limited, stereotyped point of view, I don’t think it is true anymore. It might have been an amusing insight back in the 1960s or 1970s, in the age of The God That Failed.

These days, though, if anything the saying has reversed. It’s the young people who are the fanatic conservatives, and the middle-aged who look back in regret and realize life is more nuanced than they thought in the arrogance of youth.

Or, if you are Jonathan Krohn, you start as a conservative at 13 and get over it by 16.

In general, it seems to me that much of the world has flipped from when I was growing up. Back in the 1980s, American liberals were coasting on the memory of a popular, somewhat radical president from two decades earlier, reduced to a bunch of hyperventilating hysterics while the other side just tried to get things done. Today, the Republican Party is pretty much the same, just replace Kennedy for Reagan.

I care about what actually works, what makes people’s lives better. And good music. And books, movies, etc. So, for 2012, I propose:

If you are 20 and not a conservative, you have no guts.

If you are 40 and still a conservative, you have no brain.

(Note: just talking about American-style conservatism. Many other Western countries seem to have more rational conservatives).

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