Another weekend, another round of protests here in Spain by the indignados, or “the outraged”, demanding an end to cuts and other austerity measures. I was taking a walk along the Gran Via yesterday when one troupe of demonstrators from Badalona came marching down the road, blocking traffic and shouting their uncoordinated, mismatched chants (for someone used to Korean demonstrations, Spanish protests are rather underwhelming).
But protest quality aside, what is most irksome is seeing how profoundly all involved in Spain — the pro-austerity crowd and the indignados — continue to miss the point.
On the one hand, cutting and slashing budgets in Spain (and much of Europe) are terribly bad macroeconomics. This budget was in surplus with a very small debt when the economic crisis happened, and austerity now in such a miserable economy only creates more problems than it is supposed to cure.
On the other hand, so much of Spain is still so horribly inefficient. Businesses have 20 people doing the work of four or five in, say, New York. One cultural organization I know here in Barcelona has 18 people employed in its tourism division — despite not offering any tours of its facilities or doing anything tourism-related. It’s crazy. The good years of 1996-2006 or so led to massive bureaucratic expansion, much of which is still in place.
So what solutions are politicians talking about? Instead of trying to figure out how to make the reforms that are needed to make Spain more efficient while creating projects that will help Spain in the long-term, we get arguments about Catalan independence. Instead of cutting the fat and adding to the efficient, we have institutions cutting the meat and protecting the fat.
So we will very soon be in a situation in which the four main parties in Spain—the ones represented in the Metroscopia survey—all have around or less than 20% support, within a political and constitutional system that is rotting away all by itself due to so much corruption, incapable of bringing about the institutional changes necessary to adapt Spain to a new century, and in which there is no realistic alternative anywhere on the horizon capable of governing the country.
Of course, with the European economy as a whole shrinking for six quarters in a row — worse than the initial crisis of 2008/9 — it’s not like the rest of the continent is doing much better. It’s a beautiful place, but I’m happy I’ll be moving on soon.
Google’s fun Earth Engine lets you look at maps of the world going back nearly 30 years, so you can see how an area has changed over time. Usually, the resolution isn’t good enough to turn up much of anything, but one area it works pretty well is with reclaimed land along coastlines. And between Songdo in Incheon and Saemangeum in Jeolla Province, Korea has a couple of big reclamation projects going on. So I checked them out on the Earth Engine to see how they looked.
Here is Songdo, the new “international business city” being built southwest of Seoul, close to the Incheon airport:
Saemangeum is even bigger, with around 400 square kilometers eventually to be reclaimed from the sea (or so I read). I don’t know how much they’ve done so far, but it is fascinating to watch, along with the building of that huge sea wall:
Paul Krugman’s latest column, “The 1 Percent Solution,” is a very good one, as usual, but it also gets at a deeper issue that has been bothering me for some time — why is it that austerity ideas are so deeply rooted in the elites, despite such a lack of evidence for their effectiveness? Krugman gets into the class aspects of the divide, arguing that the 1% are simply arguing for policies that are good for the 1%. Not terribly surprising, I guess.
But it is an argument that brings up a couple of related points, imho. The first is demographic. While there is a big divide between haves and have-nots, it is a line that changes with age — as people get older, they tend to get richer, and they tend to become net creditors instead of debtors. The 1% beliefs are not just about entitlements and austerity, they also are very creditor-friendly, preferring deflation over inflation, for example. Which in part explains the difference in how age groups support different policies.
The other bigger issue that I’ve heard economists bring up is the Cold War. Basically, the argument is, back in the days of the Cold War, when there was this big, left-wing enemy out there, the monied elites in the West saw it was in their interest not to let inequality grow too much. The peasants had alternatives, so you couldn’t let them get fired up and storm the Bastille. A stable, happy system was good for all.
But today, now that communism is over as a viable danger, the 1% (or 0.1% or so) are free to push for their own interests without fear of blowback. And so they have pushed, quite successfully. Is it a coincidence that the rise of the financial industry and inequality matches with the downfall of communism? Maybe economic systems need common enemies to keep them in balance.
With the continued problems gripping Europe, you can see people growing more desperate for a solution. Most people are pretty centrist politically, but when the center refuses to provide answers, people will look for alternatives. Certainly Spain is exhibit A for a political system that is completely unable to reform itself or provide answers for its citizens. Without things in Europe getting better, I worry who might try filling that void in the future.
My new article about K-pop and Korean economics is out in the latest issue of the Milken Review. It was fun writing something longer and more serious than the usual K-pop feature, letting me flex some different writing and thinking muscles.
So far, it looks like the article is getting some good feedback, too, getting mentions in Forbes, Kpopstarz, and elsewhere. I’ll try to add more links as I run across them.
Loving the latest batch of images of Bong Joon-ho’s SNOWPIERCER that have appeared online. Still no word when the film might get a release day, sadly. But it feels good to see Bong’s film shaping up so nicely.
So, I was enjoying Andrei Lankov’s latest New York Times column on North Korea — as usual, he is the most astute observer on that regime — when I did a bit of wayward Googling and discovered that Mr. Lankov has a new book out aboutPyongyang, the charming Kim family, and all that good stuff.
It took about 30 seconds before I had The Real North Korea on my Kindle. I’m really looking forward to reading it … although I am slammed with enough work and deadlines these days that I fear I will not get it done for a couple of months.
As for Andrei’s latest column I mentioned, here’s the key graph:
If history is any guide, in a few weeks’ time things will calm down. North Korea’s media will tell its people that the might of the People’s Army and the strategic genius of their new young leader made the terrified American imperialists cancel their plans to invade the North. Meanwhile, North Korea’s diplomats will approach their international counterparts and start probing for aid and political concessions.
In other words, it is business as usual on the Korean Peninsula.
So, apparently the latest round of Euro-crisis wackamole has moved on to Portugal, with worse-then-expected economic news leading to worse-than-expected cuts. Slash, rinse, repeat. As usual, economists like Paul Krugman are saying how foolish the whole austerity cycle is, and as usual no one in authority listens to them (although the Portuguese courts struck down some of the government’s cuts last Friday).
Now, at this point I do not find it very surprising that the political leader in Portugal, as pretty much everywhere in Europe do not have the imagination or the stones to take a stand against the voodoo-economics of cut-cut-cut. But what does surprise me greatly is how little popular support there is for fixing the Europea’s true problem — no, not excessive spending or the welfare state, I’m talking about ending the euro itself.
Living on the Iberian peninsula and traveling around Europe, you see plenty of signs that people are opposed to their governments’ austerity plans. There are oodles of rallies and posters decrying cuts, calling for “socialisme” and “reform”, demanding strikes, etc. But all of that misses the point, doesn’t it? Because when economists say austerity is stupid, they are not advocating continuing spending as if nothing was wrong. The real argument is that the euro itself is fundamentally flawed, and unless Europe turns its currency union into a fuller fiscal union, the euro simply cannot work.
It is a clear and powerful argument. However, I have seen almost no popular pressure to ditch the euro. It isn’t a chant at rallies or a common poster. No political parties of note are rallying behind the idea. And without a commitment to fix the real problem that is plaguing Europe, I don’t see how this problem is going to get fixed … at least not any time soon.
One of my bigger arguments in Pop Goes Korea was that the Korean Wave was not really about Korea at all; it was actually about globalization. The amazing success Korea has had in media and entertainment over the past 10-15 years was not because Korea was unique and different as much as it was because Korea has ahead of the curve.
Korea was at the forefront of the Internet revolution, and many of the changes that online has wrought came to Korea first (or at least quicker and more dramatically). Music, for example — online/digital sales in Korea have surpassed physical sales (CDs, etc.) since at least 2004.
But, the thing is, those changes are increasingly affecting the rest of the world now. With music now, $5.6 billion is spent globally on digital music (that’s about 34% of all music revenue), with digital exceeding physical sales in Sweden, Norway, India, and the United States, and much of the rest of the world is catching up.
Which brings me to Turkey and Turkish television. I wrote about Turkish soaps in 2010, but they have just continued to grow in popularity since then, earning $90 million in exports last year, up from just $1 million in 2007. They have found big fans throughout Central Asia, the Balkans, the Arab World and even Latin America. And what’s driving that success? Good production values and stories, as well as the need for more content — cable/satellite TV means more channels, and those channels need something to fill the void. Turkish producers have done their best to fill it.
One of Turkey’s most popular TV shows, Magnificent Century (or “Muhteşem Yüzyıl”).
And it is not just Turkey. In Eastern Europe, the growth of pay-TV (now an $8.3 billion market) has also created more demand, leading producers to emulate Russian, Scandinavian, and other content.
With the success of Turkish soft power, predictably, has come a backlash, with many countries banning Turkish soaps. While cultural protectionism is a common issue all over the world (at least when a country is importing culture … exporters tend to be much more open-minded), I do think a lot of journalists oversell the issue. As one wrote:
Remember, the Turks did not feel they should be a satellite state of Brazil just because they so dearly loved Brazilian soap operas in the 1980s and 1990s. Nor did the Arabs begin to love the Americans/America because they had a habit of watching more Hollywood films (than Turkish soaps).
On the other hand (if I may undercut my own argument), when you look at the IFPI’s international music numbers, local sales are still overwhelmingly important in most markets. But I don’t think that is terribly surprising. Exports are more of an issue in capital-intensive forms of media, like TV or movies. When you go to the big international content markets (film, TV, music, or whatever), you are increasingly seeing an international presence selling content, not just buying. It’s still the early phases of the new media world we are growing into, but I’m still encouraged by what I am seeing.
Over at Ta-Nehsi Coates’ blog, he has been writing about his travels to Europe, where he is studying French. In some ways, his posts are very typical of the first-time international traveler — confusion, loneliness, reactions to weird differences, self-reflection on one’s weird reactions to differences. But in other ways — Coates being an adult from West Baltimore — his posts are very different and fascinating.
At one point, Coates says:
I am an American and an Anglophone. With that tile I could, at any moment, make myself understood here. It takes a particular kind of tyranny to demand access to everyone’s power, to everyone’s family reunion.
Which I found a rather interesting take on the unilingual, Anglo-American mindset. Although the more I’ve traveled, the more I have seen it exhibited by other cultures, too — by the Chinese, Spanish, Russians, Koreans, Germans, and even the French.
I first traveled to the United States when I was 18, and that was odd enough. But that was still the same language, food, and TV shows, for the most part. My first trip to France occurred when I was around 23 (and still very much an immature dork), and I probably had many of the same reactions Coates had to Paris. You get amazed by all the cool stuff, you walk around to the parks and museums, you wish your French was better, you get hit by bouts of profound loneliness, you are constantly overwhelmed by the experience.
By the time I was 25, I finally made it to Korea, where I got to experience the new-traveler sensations all over again. But it was also different. Korea was a lot different than France or anywhere in western Europe. But it was not my first time traveling anymore, so I had grown a little more comfortable at being uncomfortable (a very important part of becoming a grown-up, imho).
My first week in Korea felt like a year, at least. It was like this vast information dump was hitting my brain, so all the neurons were firing, slowing down time in the process. The first month felt nearly as long again, as I slowly began to figure out this totally different country. And the whole first year, it was much the same process. About six months in, I met someone who had been living in Korea for four years, and he might as well have said he had been living under a polar ice cap — I just could not imagine it. (Granted, this was a smaller city in Korea, not Seoul, and this guy lived outside that town in the countryside … and it was the mid-1990s).
By the second year in Korea, I had settled in and was normalizing my life there, and my two-year anniversary came and went without my even realizing it for a couple of weeks. Next thing you know, you’ve been there a decade.
Even as I was living in Korea, I made a point of traveling as much as I could, going to China, Mongolia, Japan, and many of the other typical places one travels. With each trip, I could feel the sense of overwhelming ease off. I mean, it is still a bit disorienting going to a new place for the first time, but you get used to it. You get more comfortable at being uncomfortable.
Now, many years later, I find myself back in Europe. Things go wrong, communication breaks down, and I try not to let it bother me. I try to enjoy the good stuff and take the hiccups in stride. Of course, I am not traveling by myself anymore, which makes a big difference, too. In my 20s and early 30s, I always traveled alone, which can be more alienating and strange, but it also exposes the neurons to the full force of a new locale and new people. Traveling with a spouse is better, but you always feel a bit more distant from the places you visit … like you are taking a small, two-person country with you at all times. Instead of the tyranny of demanding access to everyone else’s family reunions, you are a family of your own, and now you man the gates and keep out interlopers.
We’ll be heading back to Asia soon — to Southeast Asia instead of Korea — and I’m looking forward to the whole experience all over again. I’m sure there will be some more hiccups, but nothing too bad. I doubt we’ll be feeling overwhelmed by the culture shock or food or anything like that again. I’m pretty comfortable at being uncomfortable. But sometimes I wish I wasn’t.