Tuesday, December 24, 2013

An Analysis of the "Are You All Right?" Movement - Part 2: The Big Question

As I read the “Are You All Right?” (AYAR) letter, the letter that started it all, and perused the movement’s Facebook page, I came across hundreds of handwritten letters that others have posted online. I am sure that if I bothered to do a Naver search, I would have found more.

Source: http://img.hani.co.kr/imgdb/resize/2013/1217/138717714379_20131217.JPG

As I read dozens of these letters, I realized that I had seen something similar to all of this before. I saw it a little over two years ago in the United States and it was called the Occupy Movement; though that is not to say that they are identical.

Most of the letters that I read, like the original letter, were political in nature as the writers wrote to express their support for union workers and their disgust with the government, specifically President Park Geun-hye. One of the writers that I came across addressed his letter to President Park directly. He wrote his letter with his own blood.

Others were more personal. There were university students who were afraid that there weren’t any jobs waiting for them while there were middle school and high school students who were tired of being sent to hagwons after school. One of the more heartbreaking letters that I read was written by an older parent who wrote to express his/her anxiety and sadness over the fact that his/her two grown sons could not find jobs. However, even in these personal letters people were able to somehow manage to squeeze in bits and pieces about their opposition to privatization of the railroads, as well as education, utilities, health care, etc. In Korean, this kind of practice is often referred to as 끼워맞추기.

Source: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41bd5ggZxzL._SY300_.jpg

However, the common theme that I saw in most of those letters were their opposition to the privatization of railroads. The leitmotif could be summed up thusly: “With the railroad about to be privatized, how can I be all right?”

Considering the fact that the original letter had been addressed to the general public, and all the subsequent letters that have been written since have been written by members of the public who are sympathetic to the original writer’s beliefs, I have to question why these people seem to think that the privatization of the railroads is not in the interests of the general public.

And that is the big question that is missing in these letters – Why. They successfully managed to state the “what.” But not “why.”

  1. Why is the continued subsidization of the railroad industry and all other government-owned or government-run services good for the general public?
  2. Why do they feel that those workers are entitled to safe and permanent jobs?
  3. Why do they feel that they are entitled to safe and permanent jobs?

However, those were only the political questions that they did not ask. They did not even bother to talk about the more abstract principles. Either they had no interest in it or they accepted it as a given. Questions such as:

  1. What is the proper role of government?
  2. What is the proper role of unions?
  3. What is capitalism?
  4. What is welfarism?

Not only were these questions never asked, they implied and assumed from the very get-go that their views are requisite for any “good society.” Much like the Occupy Movement’s list of demands were never explained properly as to why they were for the good of everyone, the AYAR Movement does the same thing with their stance on subsidization. Why is it good for the general public? Not only do they not provide an answer, they did not even bother to ask the question.

Source: http://www.waleoladipo.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/silence1.jpg

The closest to stating the question of why came when, according to a news report from The Hankyoreh, Kang Hun-gu, another in this growing list of university students who are filling the ranks of the AYAR Movement, said:

Some are calling us ‘subversive outside forces, but we are the true insiders, the ones who headed out to Seoul Station for our own well-being – as people who would not be okay if the railways were privatized, and would not be okay if the workers faced mass suspensions. If it’s subversive to talk about your own well-being, then we’re going to be totally subversive now.”

But that still does not answer the question. To use Mr. Kang’s words, why would people not be okay if the railways were privatized? Why would it not be conducive to the general public’s well being?

(As an aside, it is humorous that some individuals in government seemed to have thought that it would be a good idea to call these university students “subversive outside forces.”  How wonderfully ironic, and poignant, that those idiots seem to be more than willing to be the stereotype that those students are accusing them of being in the first place!  That being said, how ludicrous is it that these university students seem to want these same government stooges to keep control of an industry full of workers for whom they seem to share so much solidarity with?)

The absence of these questions is unfortunate. However, it has to be recognized that the AYAR Movement became the sensation that it has become because the original letter struck an emotional chord with the people.

In my experience, social movements do not usually last for very long if the fired up emotions that led to the initial push are not backed up by intellectual arguments. That being said, either through governmental decrees or cultural suppression, the Korean people have not been allowed to express their innermost thoughts for a very long time. It could take a while before the people finish venting their frustrations.

Next Installment: The People vs. The Police State – A False Narrative


  1. Well, this was predictable.

    You seem to seek to imply that because you were unable to find arguments against privatisation of Korea's railways (though I wonder how hard you looked...) that those arguments don't exist and the students' protest messages are invalid, which is a slippery piece of rhetoric.

    The arguments against privatised railroads are perhaps pretty obvious to people who don't share your absolutist faith in the power of free markets to solve all problems. Here are some fairly self-evident reasons why some services, such as railroads, are better off provided by governments than the private sector:

    1. Corporations are interested in profits, not the public good. There is no financial incentive, therefore, for a corporation to build a railway or maintain services to an under-developed part of the country, although doing so may provide a social benefit.

    2. Likewise, there is no financial incentive for a corporation to invest in infrastructure that might provide an economic benefit to the country as a whole, but which may not reap an immediate profit for the company itself. This is further exacerbated in financial systems which reward CEOs for short-term profits at the expense of long-term investment.

    3. Railway routes are generally by their nature monopolies, in that nobody is likely to build a duplicate set of tracks between two destinations. Monopolies are bad for consumers.

    4. Privatisation of railroads hasn't been too succesful - see, for instance, Britain's privatised railways, which are widely seen as having been a disastrous move.

    Really, it is one thing to argue in favour of privatisation, but to claim your position is correct because you assert that there are no arguments on the other side is pretty weak.

    1. Now here I was thinking that this was the tamest thing that I had written and could hardly annoy anyone.

      By the way, my educational background was in economics. So of course I have never heard a single argument that supports the idea of government subsidies! By the way, I challenge you to point out to me where I ever claimed that their message is invalid.

      My point is that in not one of these letters did they ever explain why they believe what they believe. Am I or anyone else supposed to assume that they are familiar with mercantile economic principles or with Ricardo or Keynes? Now the four points that you gave me are economic arguments, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that the their movement even pretended to talk about economics. Everything from the first letter that was posted oozed with politics.

      Furthermore, please do not presume to tell me what I believe. For one thing, I do not believe that the free market solves all problems. If it did, we wouldn't have such a thing as structural unemployment or boom-bust cycles.

      Now if they had expressed why they believe what they believe, then we'd be having a very different discussion today. Then I can say "Their arguments are wrong and these are the reasons." But they did not do that. They expressed their political beliefs as though they were preaching gospel truth.

      That is why I never stated that their position is invalid and that my points are. There can be no argument when there are no ideas given. There can only be yelling, which I was quite sure that I refrained from this time around.

    2. But since you were so kind enough to give me your four points to support the continued subsidization of railroads, I will answer your points in kind.

      1) Business executives are, indeed, interested in profits. But are government officials truly interested in the public good? They might not be motivated by the profit motive as business executive might be, but they are certainly motivated by votes and campaign donations.

      2) "Might provide an economic benefit to the country as a whole." And how does government calculate what an economic benefit to the country as a whole is? Does politics not play any role in such decisions? My favorite example is the building of schools. Hardly anyone can ever argue against money being spent on schools. Everyone wants schools for their children to attend and people love it when new construction takes place. The new jobs that start, as well as the attraction of new businesses to the area. It's all great. Until the population either shrinks or grows or shifts and all of a sudden those schools (and towns) empty out or the schools are overcapacity and slowly start to deteriorate.

      And are you sure you want to talk about short-term profits at the expense of long-term investments and apply it to only CEOs? There seem to be A LOT of former politicians who financed a lot of bridges going nowhere only to avoid being blamed when things do go south because they have long since left their positions.

      3) You seem to have a limited understanding of what a monopoly is. A true monopoly must be the sole provider of any kind of good or service that has no other substitutes. A single company that owns a single track would be a monopolistic supplier as there are no other railways in the vicinity owned by a different company. However, it is not a monopoly because there are other substitutes to railways. The best example of it being trucking.

      The mistake that you're making is that the economy is static. It is not. People adapt and change their behaviors constantly.

      4) "Meanwhile train company profits soar thanks to huge taxpayer subsidies." It is not privatized if it still gets taxpayer subsidies. And of course the business executives don't reinvest into the railway. They have no reason to do when they're still being subsidized by the Treasury.

      The thing about the free market is about profit and loss. Privatizing a companies profits and socializing its losses is NOT privatization; it's politics. If a company cannot make a profit, then it should be allowed to fail. But if a business fails, does the railway suddenly disappear into thin air? No. Another company will take it over. And if there is no one who wants to take it over, it can be stripped for parts and auctioned off. And then let the market change and adapt.

  2. Trying to think about whether I want to debate your points and... probably not. We're not going to convince each other. You're clearly intelligent and educated in economics, but I find the stuff you write very absolutist, either unaware or dismissive of alternate viewpoints with extensive histories, and scary in its embracement of an (almost?) unrestrained free market, an idea which I feel is discredited. Apologies if I misrepresented your viewpoints - if you have a more nuanced view of things, I wish you would express it.

    I felt that your post was suggesting that there are no valid arguments against privatisation, and wanted to point out some to any readers who might be less familiar with them.

    Your comparison of CEOs and politicians being equally interested in short-term profits is interesting. I'll think about it.

    1. The great tragedy of economics is that is unfortunately always trumped by politics. And once anything goes anywhere near that nest of vipers, hardly anything leaves unpoisoned.

      I am not unaware of alternate viewpoints. But I am rather dismissive of them because I have accepted a certain set of principles as truth, as you have done as well. One of the charges levied against me is that I seem to think that the free market fixes all problems. As I said earlier, I know it doesn't. Only someone on Fox News would make such a claim. It is hardly perfect. But I support it because it offers individuals the greatest freedom to succeed (or fail). There are also moral reasons, too, but I try to differentiate my economic and philosophical reasons for my advocacy of capitalism.

      I've read your "About" page on your blog. You said something along the lines of not wanting to write about a topic for which you feel you have little to add. I feel the same way. There are already many, many people who speak with ease about the ills of capitalism. Though I do agree with some (very few) of their critiques, I feel I have no need to repeat them. And yes, there are many people who write about the benefits of capitalism, too, but not to my satisfaction. Perhaps that's where my vanity comes in.

  3. Perhaps you are new to this site but yes, our Korean Foreigner friend is very much the unfettered free market capitalist.

  4. I stumbled upon this website after a friend of mine posted a question about the "Are You All Right Movement" this appears to be the only English language source for information on the subject (granted I didn't do an extensive search). While it is great that someone is writing about this in English I was quite troubled by some of the language and assumptions made in this piece, in particular the line "Why do these workers feel that they are entitled to safe and permanent jobs?" First I am going to assume that you mean "safe" in the sense of job security and not "safe" from getting hurt. Though the author would do well to read some history to see the role of unions in helping to prevent workers from dying on the job. mostly I have trouble with the word "entitled."

    Entitled seems to be an right-wing buzzword these days, usually employed to paint people or groups as lazy, whining babies for whichever reason suits their rhetorical goal. But the author does have a point, nobody is entitled to anything, workers are not "entitled" to a certain wage or job, just as owners aren't entitled to cheap labour or private property. These things are distributed via the economic system. Just as employers can negotiate a price for land, equipment, supplies etc. they negotiate a price for labour. A worker, on the other had, can negotiate a price for their labour. It just so happens that the employer has more bargaining power (they have money, the state, and all other people looking for jobs as their bargaining chips) the worker has the ability to assemble with other workers or organize and negotiate better wages, conditions etc. There are no entitlements here, the agreed upon labour price is worked for by both sides, with one trying to push it down and the other trying to push it up.

    Remember, when you leave a purely economic view you realize that workers are people, they want to live comfortably, they want stable lives and they want their work to be rewarded with fair pay and the ability to retire with dignity. Those with families will want to earn enough to provide for them, to send children to school (something that is very expensive in Korea). Again, reading some history will illustrate how this happened. The transition from feudalism to capitalism required people who once had land to be removed from their land thus forcing them to seek employment in towns and cities. With land, no matter how small, you can eek by on whatever you can grow, make and trade. Without land the working class had nothing left to sell but labour. The history of the emergence of the working class is one of human misery. Employers were allowed to charge the bare minimum for employment, the bare minimum being just enough to keep workers alive to show up the next day. Unions arose out of these conditions and were largely violently suppressed by employers, private security forces and the state (remember the state is on the side of capital 100% of the time). What happened is that over time governments realized that killing their own citizens was not a sustainable policy and thus unions were afforded some rights, rights that reached their peak in the post WWII years and have been steadily in decline since the 70s.

    So, all this to say, this is not an issue of entitlements. The state abolishing the right for workers to assemble, strike, protest for better (or I think in this case "stagnant") working conditions is the same as the state abolishing private property. There is no inherent reason why humans are able to own land, there is a system that has been created that revolves around the ownership of land, where those without it have no choice but to sell their labour. So what we have at this point in history is a matter for rights, people have the right to own property, machines, etc. and other people have the right to assemble in groups to try and influence employers, politicians, decision makers, to try and live stable and more comfortable lives.

    1. In one of your comments you mention that people aren't making economic arguments, that everything is oozed in politics. You also mention that you study economics and thus never heard a single argument in favour of government subsidies. I think if you broaden your reading a little bit (I recommend Polanyi and Braudel for economic history) you will see that you can't separate politics and economics. Economics is not a science, it is ideology masked as science. You appear to be well read in Neoclassical and Chicago School Economics. You name dropped Keynes so surely you have read, or at least heard of one economist who supports the role of government in certain areas of the economy. Well remember that Keynes wanted to protect capitalism from the more radical elements of the workers movement that had grown quite strong, and even taken over some countries in the early 20th century. If your economic theory doesn't account for the fact that people might get angry and fight back when living conditions are bad then it is not dealing with reality and should remain theoretical. When people do fight back because they want a better life then there are only a few options, concede some ground, or push them back with batons and guns.

    2. Firstly, thank you for commenting. Your comment was fun to read. Without further ado, I would like to answer to some of your comments and questions.

      Firstly, you are right that when I said “safe,” I did mean “job security.” That unions have historically played a leading role in improving job safety standards, lowering of working hours, etc. is not in dispute. However, the unions that we see today are not the same as the unions of old. The public sector union strike that we saw in Seoul yesterday was all about politics through and through. Whenever I hear those who are pro-union talk about the unions’ great deeds throughout their history, I am often reminded of American Republicans who speak at great length about how they are the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and Barry Goldwater. That was then and this is now, isn’t it?

      It would not be an issue of entitlement if the discussion was between a private union and a privately-owned business. Then it would just be price negotiation. On one extreme, the workers get everything they want, which leads to the business closing down. On the other, the business owners get everything they want, which leads to extremely low wages (which eventually leads to the business shutting down as the workers will then leave to find employment elsewhere).

      And no one is denying that the workers have a right to assemble and associate with one another. However, in this case, when the government-owned corporation is in severe debt and is bleeding money, and is being kept afloat through taxpayers’ money all the while the workers have had their wages raised by more than five percent every year since 2005, and they are demanding that they be assured permanent job security by shouting “NO PRIVATIZATION” while no one in power is saying they want to privatize, then yes, it does become an issue of entitlement.

      I think the comment that I made that you were referring to was when I said, “By the way, my educational background was in economics. So of course I have never heard a single argument that supports the idea of government subsidies!”

      I was under the impression that it was clear that I was being sarcastic. Since it appears that it was not as clear as I thought, please, allow me to say that I was, indeed, being sarcastic. If someone studied economics and has never actually heard any arguments for or against government subsidization of private business, then that person clearly wasted his/her money.

    3. I also mentioned earlier, “The great tragedy of economics is that is unfortunately always trumped by politics. And once anything goes anywhere near that nest of vipers, hardly anything leaves unpoisoned.”

      I am aware that in practice, politics and economics cannot seem be separated. It is a lamentable fact.

      Economics is not a pure science like the way chemistry is. It is a study of human behavior. As such, it tends to get hijacked by ideologues, both on the Left and the Right. However, economics is also built on a foundation of hypotheses that have been used to determine human action in response to incentives and disincentives. To claim that it is therefore an ideology is inaccurate.

      Classical economics does not tend to deal with human emotions. But it does not discount it either. That people get angry is not in doubt. But the people are misdirecting their anger. If the people are genuinely angry at economic realities, then what the people want is to be able to have their cake and eat it, too. What the people should really be angry at are the politicians (and the business executives in bed with those politicians) who have allowed economic conditions to deteriorate the way they have.

      But people are blinded with ideology or incomplete information and join one side or the other.

      As for your comment about batons, that is the role of the government. The government should only use force against criminals. But if it is using force against the people to protect its own corrupt interests, then neither I nor any thinking individual can or ought to support the government.

      However, due to my default position of being unable to bring myself to trust a mob, I’d much rather not support anyone.