Dr. Emanuel Pastreich promotes his 2012 book, “세계의 석학들, 한국의 미래를 말하다”(Scholars of the World Speak Out About Korea’s Future); Seoul: Dasan Books; ISBN 978-89-6370-072, at The Soho near Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul.
“The Problem with Islands:
Long term solutions for the Sengaku-Diaoyu conflict”
The Asia Institute
November 2, 2012
November 2, 2012
Asia Institute & GCS
International Peace Seminar to Commemorate
31st Anniversary of the UN International Day of Peace
The Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) are a set of uninhabited islands not far from Taiwan, the coast of Fujian, People’s Republic of China, and the Japanese island of Yonaguni in Okinawa that have become the site for remarkable dispute between China, Taiwan and Japan. The collision between the Chinese fishing trawler Minjinyu and a Japanese coast guard vessel on the morning of September 7, 2010 (and the subsequent detention and release of the captain of Minjinyu) made a long-brewing dispute over territory into a cause célèbre in China that has taken the form of a series of protests in both China and Japan of a severity not seen in since the Cultural Revolution.
The announcement by the City of Tokyo that it would buy the Senkaku Islands from its private owners, thus conflating private real estate with national territoriality, set off an even more virulent set of protests in China in 2012 that have created a sense of distrust and foreboding in Asia at a time when many looked forward to an age of increasing economic and cultural exchange. 2012 was slated for a series of celebrations to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the normalization of relations between Japan and the People’s Public of China. All of those events have been cancelled or postponed. In fact, even an innocent conference of comparative literature to which I had been invited was abruptly cancelled. On the Japanese side as well, protests are planned and emotions have run high—a marked contrast to previous demonstrations that were widely ignored in Japan.
As we grapple for an answer to this conflict, we must first and foremost avoid a focus on the reasons given by those individuals participating in the protests. Those emotions are quite real, but in many cases they are the product of complex factors that blend together into a seeming whole. For example, the conflict over these uninhabited islands takes place at a moment of unprecedented economic and technological convergence between Japan and China. The territoriality of these islands where no one lives is being contested at a moment when it has become extremely easy to send money, or talk by Skype, or travel by airplane between Tokyo and Beijing. It seems as if these barren islands are somehow tied directly to the new level of integration taking place in the capitals of these two world powers. We might ask, are the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands a hot issue between China and Japan in spite of the high level of integration, or because of the high level of integration? Are these islands a space into which the new integrated Northeast Asian narrative and all its ambiguities and uncertainties are projected? A play where the unfinished national narratives are played out as a global drama?
There have been times of closer and of more distant relations between China and Japan. But we can say with confidence that on almost every level, the current level of economic, technological manufacturing and even cultural integration between the two nations is unprecedented. Chains for manufacturing and logistics tie the two nations together seamlessly and although there may be some campaigns against the purchases of Japanese automobiles in Beijing, integration and in terms of trade and finance, goes on as before.
So there are multiple reasons why those uninhabited, small islands, Uotsuri (Diaoyu in Chinese), Kitakojima (Beixiaodao) and Minami Kojima (Nanxiaodao) have taken on tremendous symbolic power and threaten to undo much of the progress made in recent years. Some speak of the issue of valuable oil reserves in the vicinity of the islands and also the valuable fishing rights at stake. Such issues are no doubt a factor, but they cannot explain the scale of the response on China’s part.
We need to consider the historical, economic and social factors that have led to the current crisis, and we should do so in a manner that does postulate that the blame lies with one player or the other. The solution to the problem will come when we start to seek for the truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be. And that truth has more to do with the manner in which the societies, the economies, of all nations have been transformed over the last hundred years, and especially in the last ten years. Only with a deeper understanding of underlying issues that impact all of us and lie behind what we witness can we make progress towards a long-term or permanent solution to the crisis.
The history of the conflict
Chinese records from as early as the 14th century refer to this small group of islands as important navigational markers along a well-travelled trade route from the Chinese port of Fuzhou to the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Ryukyu Kingdom was an independent nation that makes up what is now known as Okinawa and was an important regional player during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Ryukyus maintained a delicate dual client relationship with both Qing Dynasty China and Tokugawa Japan, sending tributary missions to both countries and serving as a bridge between the two cultural and economic realms. In a sense Japan extended its cultural influence into Okinawa and that cultural influence gradually faded into a Chinese sphere of influence. That pre-modern arrangement, however, came to an end when Japan occupied and annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, promptly abolishing the government and making the territory a province. Almost 150 years later, Okinawa remains culturally and economically quite distinct from Japan and features at least six distinct languages that are not mutually intelligible with Japanese or with each other.
The open system of borders that the Ryukyu Kingdom represented was simply intolerable as the process of modernization of the economy and the redefinition of the state started in Japan in the period after the Meiji restoration of 1867. Okinawa was in a sense Japan’s first colony, granted that it incorporated it as a province.
We can see the integration of the Ryukyu Islands as an act akin to the enclosure acts that swept England in the 18th century. In the case of the enclosure acts, the definition of land was transformed into the modern real estate and in that process, the commons that had previously been shared by all farmers in a semi-feudal system were defined as private property. Suddenly, land that poor farmers had had access to for generations was walled off and they were reduced to beggary. This shift in the meaning of land, as brilliantly described in Karl Polanyi’s book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, had profound implications for more than farmland; it was the beginning of a radical transformation of all objects into products and goods for consumption that continues to this day at an increasing pace. That revolution in the thinking of a relatively small number of individuals, went on to rework the entirety of England and European society like an ideological “ice nine” that transmogrified everything it touched into a fungible product that can be bought and sold.
It is critical to see Japan’s annexation of Okinawa, and the subsequent history of the Senkaku Islands, within that socio-economic context. That is to say, that the very concept of national borders was radically altered by the economic transformation of the nineteenth century. Although we often think of that transformation as a positive, it brought with it considerably less flexibility with concern to borders and boundaries, and an odd projection of geometry and the absolutes of mathematics onto the rather porous and human interstices between cultural continuums.
As Japan reinvented itself after the Meiji Restoration, the physical borders of Japan, its territory and possessions, became a critical issue for national survival—or at least that was how the situation was perceived. There was no longer any potential for gray area, for the tolerance of a Ryukyu Kingdom, as a gentle archipelago that slowly transitions from one center of cultural production into another. Thus Okinawa could no longer be an ambiguous kingdom with loyalties to both China and Japan; it had to be clearly a province of Japan integrated bureaucratically.
Along that path of transformation, whereby islands were integrated into bureaucratic units and those bureaucratic units were linked directly to the central government, suddenly islands had to snap to the grid. In 1895, following its victory over China in the Sino-Japanese War, Japan declared the Senkaku islands to be Japanese in the modern sense of the world and went on to give those islands names in 1900. Those islands were integrated into the Japanese empire at the time, and not Japan proper. The dispute over the island is, to some degree, related to the question of where Japan proper begins.
In the post-war period, the United States occupied Okinawa, and, taking Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa to be a given, agreed in 1969 to return Okinawa to Japan. It was at that point that the Senkaku islands were transferred to Japan in terms of “administrative rights.” The United States clearly avoided the term “sovereignty” when preparing to handover these islands in 1972. The phrase reflects in part the ambiguous status of the Senkaku Islands. The Senkaku Islands were not part of the Ryukyu Kingdom originally. In addition, given the political environment of the Cold War the special proximity of these islands to the People’s Republic of China gave them a special status in the eyes of the United States security establishment, similar to the status of Xiamen off the coast of Taiwan. Perhaps the United States wished to carve out a special political space for those islands.
That phrase “administrative rights” with regards to the islands deserves careful consideration. One might ask what exactly the difference is between “administrative rights” and sovereignty or ownership. In what exact sense does an island belong to a nation and who, ultimately does that nation belong to? The question is enormous, but it is also quite manageable at the same time. Over the last one hundred years an elaborate discipline of maritime boundaries has emerged which is essentially conceptual, but is taken to be extremely concrete and inviolable. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea assumes that the possession of resources and legal regulations over inhabitants start and stop at an absolute line, taken from Euclid’s geometry. But in the material world there is no such line to be found, existing only as a conceptual projection out of legal abstractions. Certainly that line means nothing to tuna, or whales, or even divers for abalone except if they are ensnared in a controversy.
Moreover, some scholars, like Kimie Hara have suggested that the United States imagined that the conflict over the Senkaku islands could serve as a “wedge of containment” that would keep Japan from drifting too close to China, its primary market for goods and services in the pre-war period. Hara suggests that it was part of the Federal government’s long term plan for preserving its status in Japan to create such territorial ambiguities that would encourage Japanese engagement with the United States for the long term. Of course there is considerable doubt has to the degree to the entirety of the American establishment consciously cultivated such potential conflicts. But the possibility certainly cannot be ruled out.
After the end of the Cold War as China increasingly opened up to the world, and increasingly embraced a similar definition of real estate, the significance of the Senkaku Islands increased dramatically. To start with, China become an export-based economy for the first time in its history. In 1972, when the Senkaku Islands were handed over to Japan along with Okinawa, China was at the end of the brutal Cultural Revolution. That event itself was a massive questioning of the very concept of ownership in a nation in which things only belonged to the state.
The Chinese economy was radically domestic and agricultural at that time. Trade was an extremely minor part of the economic system. But the Senkaku Islands became an explosive issue in 2010 (explosive in a sense that they had never been before, even in the midst of Mao Zedong’s denunciations of American and Japanese imperialism) because China has turned to international trade as the primary driving force for its economy over the last twenty years. Suddenly shipping has become critical not only for the products that China ships out around the world, but also to supply raw materials for Chinese manufacturing and even food to feed its growing population. The consequences of this shift, starting with Deng Xiaoping’s moves to globalize China’s economy following a developmental model akin to that of Park Chung Hee of the Republic of Korea, have made the island problems extremely significant.
Suddenly the sea lanes and shipping routes have become critical not only to China’s security, but also to its economy. Whereas the Qing Dynasty shut down trade from the 1670s until the late nineteenth century and Mao did the same for thirty years, today China does not see that turtle defense as an option. Oceans have become more important to China than they have ever been in its history. Moreover, China has taken a great interest in the developing a blue-water navy as part of a recognition of this shift in China’s economic integration with the world via shipping and logistics.
Because of the new importance of oceans for China, the so-called “first island defense line” consisting of the Korean peninsula, Jeju Island, Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines has taken on a vital significance for China. The threats that China perceives in the American so-called “Pacific Pivot” are not abstract, but extremely concrete. Any military activity, even tension, in this line of islands directly off China’s coast could immediately disrupt Chinese trade and in a short period of time lead to massive unemployment, and even starvation. A war would not be necessary to cripple China and cause domestic instability. Thus the possibility of militarizing the Senkaku Islands, or the adjacent islands of Yonaguni and Ishizaki, holds tremendous significance for China.
Of course the memory, whether real, or learned in textbooks, of Japanese imperial policy towards China makes the Japanese claims to the Senkaku Islands seem far more threatening to China than they might appear to outsiders. As an American, I can certainly see the mistakes that Japan may have made in recent years, but in light of America’s rather disturbing policies around the world, I must be humble. In fact, the disagreement about the Senkaku Islands is if anything, a composite of multiple factors: cultural, historical, economic, strategic and geographic.
We should also be aware of the domestic issues within Japan that underlie the recent arguments in Japan for the militarization of the Senkaku Islands. The adjacent islands of Yonaguni and Ishizaki have suffered devastating drops in their populations in recent years, and, in the case of Yonaguni, because it has no high school, many youth leave the island early in life, never to return. For this reason, there is great interest in the area in developing closer relations and exchanges with China and Taiwan, something that the central government has consistently discouraged. At the local level China is not a looming threat, but rather a significant economic opportunity. The people of Yonaguni carry Japanese passports, but they speak their own language, Dunan Munui a language more distant from Japanese than English is from German. The traditional trade routes of the past would naturally tie these islands to Taiwan and the mainland and have been efforts to cement those ties that have been undercut by Tokyo.
Possible approaches to a long-term solution
I believe that the first step towards a resolution of the Senkaku Islands problem requires us to consider carefully the process in economic, cultural and political terms by which Japan and China have been transformed over the last century, and especially over the last twenty years. We must, above all, avoid generalizations and judgments about entire cultures and peoples.
We must avoid statements suggesting that Japanese are imperialistic in nature, or that the Chinese are non-democratic in nature. Such statements only drive us further away from the true causes, displacing real economic, social and political issues. I feel the same way about the arguments that the fight over the Senkaku Islands is merely an effort of the Chinese government to shift domestic discontent over to Japan. Although clearly such political concerns are present in any nation facing an upsurge in emotions, the calculations of politicians are not sufficient to explain the entire process. Any arguments that are reductive and ignore the various economic and social pressures that lead China and Japan to behave in certain ways will give a biased and ultimately dishonest assessment to this conflict.
Going forward, it seems that the most essential point is for us to return to a conception of geography and nationhood that does not encourage these sorts of conflicts over islands. Specifically, we might ask what has changed since a previous age when one Chinese fisherman called the island by one name and a Japanese fisherman by another without any conflicts. What has changed about our concept of the nation and how have we become more inflexible? Why do the borders between nations become so absolutely essential to the nation?
Behind this shift in the perception of borders over the last 150 years we can detect the projection of the absolutes of geometry onto the world of human relations. We want to see the relations between states in an absolute manner, as if there was a clear Japan that starts here and ends there and that Japan is run by Tokyo. But there is no such border. If anything, in terms of the movement of products, there is literally no border between China and Japan today. It is only for humans, not for fish or for television sets, that these borders exist.
Certainly the ecosystem, or even the racial makeup of populations, has nothing to do with this imaginary line. If anything, the reality of technology and globalization is that such borders, such barriers, are increasingly less certain. There are large numbers of people who travel between these two nations and even more circulation between them in terms of goods and information.
Where China really stops and Japan begins is an open question that cannot be so easily resolve d by fiat. China and Japan are increasingly merging together in the technological and IT aspects. Money and capital, information and data, logistics and distribution, all pull the two countries together as a whole. Many Japanese make there home in Beijing and Chinese make there home in Tokyo. And in spite of these trends, or perhaps precisely because of them, we find such economic integration is paired together with confrontation at the local level. It seems as if it is simply unacceptable for the central governments to have China slowly fade into Japan, through the Okinawan archipelago.
Going forward, we should heed the advice of Peter Drucker: “do not focus on problems. Find new horizons.” If we can find a new definition of borders that is more appropriate to the realities of the 21st century, and harken back to the openness of the eighteenth century, we may find a solution to this crisis.
“Challenges for Social Welfare in Korea”
Sylvia A. Allegretto, PhD
Institute for Research on Labor & Employment
University of California, Berkeley
October 12, 2012
Welfare has risen to the top of the list in terms of issues in Korean politics. We do not have a consensus on how much in welfare the citizen is entitled to and where the responsibility for welfare lies. Does the responsibility lie with the state, the employing company, the individual? What services must the state or the employer to provide to all citizens?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
I spoke with someone earlier today who said to me, he thought it would be great if he could just make enough money so he would not have to worry about social security at all. He would have enough money and make all investment decisions on his own without a government pension plan.
But the fact is the most people simply do not have that sort of income. So my response was that it would be a great solution if everyone made enough money that they did not have to worry about social security. If most people could make enough money that it would allow them to save a reasonable amount and prepare for their retirement, and have enough money to buy insurance and take care of their own retirement The United States does not offer that kind of economic system. In the United States over the last forty years we have been witness to widening inequality on an unprecedented scale. There is new wealth, but that wealth is not being seen in the income of ordinary people. The “growth” that we have seen goes to a tiny part of the population and during those periods of “growth” at best wages for the people in the middle, have stagnated (unchanged).
And if you cannot buy stock, you will not benefit from any of that “growth.” A large swath of workers in the United States have seen their incomes frozen or decline over the last few decades. Making less and less money, they are asked to pay more and more for healthcare, retirement & other services. From 2007 to 2010 the average income stagnated, there is simply less and less income available. We no longer have pensions systems for workers. To use something like a 401K (a privately managed retirement account) requires a considerable amount of financial knowledge and the employer in essence takes no responsibility for the welfare of the employee. Many financial services for more sophisticated 401Ks are essentially inaccessible to the average person.
We already have in the US a shift in terms of pension, healthcare and welfare from state and the employer to the individual. We are not seeing wages increase in a way that would support such a systemic shift in responsibility. We are not in a scenario economically in which we can fairly ask the individual to be responsible for everything. I suspect that this shift can be seen in Korea as well, although the institutions are quite different.
I think that it is absurd to expect the employer to cover the costs for the employee’s life-time investments in healthcare and retirement. Healthcare should not be tied to employment. This policy in the United States of tying healthcare and pension to employment in the United States has been a tremendous mistake in America. There are lots of times when you cannot work, between jobs, illness, family reasons. That is not a reason to cut off health insurance. We really need government to step in and play the primary role.
Of course companies should treat workers better. If a company is profoundly unfair to workers, that is just unethical. But welfare should be something beyond the company. Now we have many companies in the US saying that they cannot afford to cover employee healthcare, and they are right. It should not be a burden for companies.
What we do see, at the same time that welfare responsibility is shifted to the worker is greater and greater corporate profits that go to an extremely limited number of people. Corporate profits are the largest share of GDP in the US on record and at the same time the share of wages and the smallest share on record. That is an unhealthy economy and the same problem can be found in Korea.
As for the state in the United States, we have a plutocracy: rule by the rich for the rich. And the US is considerably worse than many nations like Germany and Korea in this respect.
Well, I would say that government in the United States has changed rather radically. That there once a large number of highly educated capable people in government, people started their ambitious careers in government in the United States. That age is over now. Government is no longer functional as a player in the process of decision-making in Washington. When we say “government” we are talking about bureaucrats who lack self-confidence who end up doing the bidding of corporate power.
But in Korea government still remains vital, a place where the best and brightest go to start their careers. That is not to say all government is good, but the potential is greater.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
That transformation of government in the United States was most purposeful. Many rich people like a weak government that can only carry out their demands. They want government to be even weaker, even less able to regulate how employees are treated by companies or investigate violations of the law.
We live in very dire economic straights under which individuals will need even more support from the state, not less. If they do not get it, we will see increased poverty, less opportunities for Americans and increasingly a struggle for survival. Yet, in America, even though poverty gets worse and worse, it is not even an issue in Washington D.C. No one wants to talk about this problem that can completely undo the country.
The crisis in Korea today is the rapidly aging population of Korea, above anything else. Part of this problem is a result of how women have been treated. They have been increasingly required to work, but they do so without proper support for childcare. So the natural decision is to not have children, not have as many children. We do not replace the population lost and we are not producing new workers. So we find an aging population.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
The working dynamics for families in the US has also changed drastically, but the working culture has not kept up with those changes. One can look at the welfare problem in terms of the degree to which institutions, systems, laws, are not keeping up with the true situation in our society. I have the impression that the problem is similar to the United States and to Korea. We also have an aging population and far fewer children in certain communities. The difference is that in the US we have a large number of immigrants who will pick up the slack, so although there is aging in certain population groups, overall the US will have the necessary young people going forward.
In the case of Korea, we find that traditionally Korea has discouraged immigration and made it rather difficult for foreigners to adjust to Korean society. But that situation is changing rapidly now. There were not large numbers of foreigners coming into Korea for the last 1000 years. But now we are starting to get foreigners, like me, and yet not immigration is not at the rate necessary to avoid the serious consequences of the aging society.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
Koreans will be forced to make tough policy decisions. You cannot have in Korea an upside down triangle for welfare with few young people supporting so many old people. That will not work and there must be change. It is unreasonable to expect a small number of young people to support the the old. Korean traditional culture has established all sorts of obligations toward the elderly that make taking care of them an even greater burden-and therefore women do not want to get married or have children! Families and society as a whole will be quite strained by this trend. In the US immigration solves some of the problems, although not all the disruptions. In the case of Korea, the question will be how serious a commitment Korea makes to immigration—and the required multinational society to support it.
Let us consider older people in the United States. In the two last recessions in the US, the only work group whose rate of employment actually went up was Americans over 55. Why was that? More and more older people are working because they do not have the means to retire, or because they have to work to maintain some health benefits.
Many older people are forced to stay in the work force. In the case of the US, the economic downturn means that many older people cannot stop working and as a result there are no openings for jobs that they occupy, no employment is available for young people. There is no way to go forward. So elderly employment impacts young people directly.
Immigration does not solve the problem for us as individuals. Americans like us are facing a rapidly aging population. There may be overall a stability in terms of statistics because new immigrants increase the workforce, but those people are not our families or friends. They are an entirely different part of the United States. The changes are still quite traumatic in Korea or the United States.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
There are going to be a lot of problems with aging people in the US. Many older people have little or no savings now. A lot of Americans are not going to recover all the money they lost in the last crash, money that they lost when the value of their homes dropped. So many older people are going to find themselves exposed in the future to a degree that they never anticipated. We do not know what will happen to these people, people aged 50 or 60 who have lost everything, or found themselves in debt at the time they thought they would soon retire.
The only positive point is that in terms of the work force immigration brings overall balance of the population. That said, immigration to the US also has slowed down because of the reduction of available jobs. Many people will not be able to stop working, or to retire in any manner. They have no means to support themselves if they can no longer work. And the specter of poverty in the case of not being able to work haunts many Americans who felt quite secure previously.
Let us imagine that there is a change in the mood in the US over the next five years so that the perspective you present will become mainstream. If we could start making new policies, what would we do?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
There are some very simple steps that we can take to address the social crisis that we face in the United States. We can increase funding for social security to make it solid and dependable for older people.
Now there is discussion of dismantling social security in the United States, in taking apart this reliable system. I think it is one of the most efficient parts of the government that we have now and it would be a disaster to take it apart.
What I tell people is that if there is a program in the United States government that is not well run, it is definitely not social security. The economist Dean Baker has written about what it would take to fix social security at length. He says social security is quite solid right now in Money News.
And yet we keep hearing all this talk about some sort of a social security crisis. Just put in sufficient funding and Social Security will be fine. I suspect that there are also many such created crises created in Korea unnecessarily. There is plenty of money available for welfare; we just need to properly allocate it.
In terms of healthcare, the United States has a crazy system, which I think Korea does not, in which employers are responsible for the healthcare of their employees. The first step in the United States is to take healthcare away from employers. We need a universal system in the United States like Korea, one that takes the burden away from employers. That simple step would much improve the United States economy and our competitiveness.
Do you imagine social security could serve as a true pension system that would be sufficient to live on, that would go beyond the small payments that older people receive today? Could government itself provide pensions to people that are sufficient to support them?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
I think that we really need exactly that sort of a system today: A system of government payments that guarantees a pension to all Americans that that is sufficient to cover basic expenses. We could end this craziness in the United States wherein so many people are rushing around just to find a way to feed themselves in old age. But there is no support for such an idea in Washington D.C. today, a place dominated by corporate interests. Ultimately, a universal pension system is really the right way to go.
In the beginning, people knew exactly what they were going to get monthly from their pensions. There has been a shifting of the burden, however, over the last few decades. It was once true there was a set pension that you would receive from your employer. Now there are these 401K savings systems in which it is the individual’s responsibility to put the money in, to manage it and the whole process is invested in Wall Street. And with the 401K a lot of the money is taken by the investment plan administrators through hidden fees. You are left at the whim of the stock market which can crash at any time. Massive amounts of money goes into these 401Ks which just gives the Wall Street Wizards more money to play with.
Korea has advanced significantly as an economy. Korea seems less sophisticated when it comes to investment portfolios. Retirement plans are pretty simple here. But Korea does supply universal healthcare and Korea does guarantee a high level of education for everyone in public schools. Overall, Korea is quite impressive not so much in terms of Harvard-like elite education, but rather very basic education for everyone, Koreans, however, think of themselves as being behind the United States.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
As the US became richer, its became more sophisticated in finance, but not always in a smart way. We have made it harder for ordinary people, working people to live decent lives. At University of California the cost of tuition for average students has gone up 100% over the last few years. For the children of bankers it seems cheap, but for working class people, it is no joke. Community Colleges have gone up in cost as well. We have become richer, but it is harder for average, low income people to just get by. There is plenty of funding to bail out banks, but nothing to help people to get jobs.
What changed in America? And why? Your thinking may seem rather outside of the mainstream that we see on TV in America when you say that social security should guarantee a decent living to working people. But in fact your ideas about welfare and education—that college should be essentially free, this was standard thinking in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, even conservatives in America basically accepted what you say about labor and social security. So Koreans are a bit confused, they are under the impression that Americans just want to privatize things, run everything according to market principles. I think many would be surprised to find that there are many who think like you do.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
Well the reason we see such a shift in thinking in the US is this: after the depression people knew what an economic crisis was and they believed in the system that the government had set up for welfare, the social security system. The United States made enormous investments during the depth of the depression to build up infrastructure, to build the Golden Gate Bridge and the Empire State Building. Well you could say we did not have the money, but we had the will to move forward. So that public spending started to turn the economy around for many people.
We should be spending now on infrastructure primarily, but we are not doing it this time around. We could have had another New Deal starting in 2008 and put a large amount of public spending into large public works projects, but the argument, which makes no sense in light of the giveaway to banks or spending on the military, was that there is no money.
We are one of the richest countries in the world, we bailed out all the freeloading investors on Wall Street in 2008, but if you talk about any program for infrastructure to create jobs, there is no money and it is bad policy. Korea should not make that mistake.
Today, it Easier to get infrastructure built in Afghanistan than in the United States. There is more spent on infrastructure there.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
Well that might seem to be the case, but in Afghanistan, most of the money goes to contractors, not bridges or houses.
The level of investment government institutions in the 1930s is what made California so great. The public investment in education the University of California made it a world-class university It has singly been investment in education, public education, that makes the difference. So the US benefited from that massive investment in public education—university was almost free back in the 1950s. And that was true all the way through the 1970s. But then, for some reason, the value of public investment in education was no longer clear to people and they were misled by special interests. Today, many ordinary people have been led to believe that somehow we need less government, that government is the problem.
My family is entirely working class and they all live in rural Pennsylvania. My father was a union painter his whole life, never making a large income. My mother worked in a factory for 25 years; My grandmother worked in a factory for 35 years. None of my family has any advanced education. So when I go home to my hometown, a place you would think would be a pro-union pro-labor environment, I am shocked. All these people are losing their jobs and their benefits. All they do is sit down over beer and complain to each other. I said to them, well maybe you should organize, but they really have no concept of what that might be. They don’t think they need a union or any representation. But your salary is just $11 an hour, I say. You have worked for decades with no improvement in pay.
In America we are really fighting an ideology of the free market, and people down to the working class have grown up on this argument that somehow the free market will help them, but it does not in the slightest. It is deep in the political realm. This vision is supported by religious groups as well who suggest that somehow government sponsored social welfare is bad.
So why is that working class people have so much trouble figuring out what their interests are?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
The start of the problem, which has changed American politics completely, was when working class people started going to the Republican Party over moral, religious issues like abortion or school prayer. They were carried over by conservative forces because of certain morality issues.
But we are seeing an immense shift right now in the United States. A lot of Americans who ask themselves,
“What happened? I got up every day, I worked hard and played by the rules and now I have lost everything. What happened?”
And these Americans see how the rich are now getting so much richer whereas they were just driven into debt and struggle just to survive.
So the question is deep: why people do not understand what is wrong with social welfare in the US. Many people have come only recently to recognize that there is something seriously wrong with the US economy, but they do not see either party as being a choice, as being a solution.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
There is no political party that advocates for the issues that need to be taken up of average people. Democrats are pretty conservative (concerned with corporate interests) and Republicans have moved to the radical right in the United States to attract religious groups. The consequences are quite serious.
Average people are now just tired of politics and it is hard to improve social welfare if people do not trust the system or the political parties. Both are parties funded by Wall Street that really just want to say what sounds good to average people then get back to serving their masters. I think that the Korean case is perhaps not as extreme as that in the United States.
People in the US feel disenfranchised. One in five homes in the US is worth less than the loans owed on it. That has caused terrible damage because people were counting on the houses they owned to serve as their pension, their welfare. We have a terrible housing crisis and it is not mentioned in the media any more—we pretend it went away.
Many people in the US have been unemployed for a long time, the working class feel nobody cares about them in the system. This is a common feeling among Americans.
As for the response in the United States of working people supporting the conservatives, I saw a documentary recently that gave us a clue as to what is happening. There was an interview with a man in the rural south. He was poor, but he voted for Republicans who are just taking apart social welfare. He said,
“I vote on the side of God. I know these Democrats talk a lot about helping working people. But nothing they talk about up there in Washington D.C. ever gets to me. Nothing here ever changes. So I vote with God.”
So the Republican party may not do anything for working people, but it speaks of God and ultimate morality. The Democrats promise various changes in this material work, but nothing ever happens. So working people think it better to go with God.
Let us talk about childcare for working women. What do you think the policy should be? What do things look like right now in the United States?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
It sounds to me like the issue of childcare is also very similar between the United States and Korea. In the United States we have seen a massive social shift in terms of women going to work over the last thirty years. Now almost half of the jobs are held by women, near fifty percent now. But the United States has no childcare policy. No changes in family work policy. No real maternity leave, no mandated vacation for women having children. It is up to the employer to decide what to offer, or not to offer. Of course women do get maternity leave, but it is usually unpaid and often not very long at all. Our lives, our work habits, our families have changed, but there has not been a change in policy.
Men’s working hours have stayed pretty much the same the whole time. The change came on the side of women who are expected to work full-time now. It has been a tremendous failure of governments to not properly respond to this change in our society that ultimately affects men as much as women. The cost is enormous. The pain and damage to families is immense. The economy is hurt. Of course for upper middle class women, they can take time off. But no one else can.
So should the government mandate childcare facilities, maternity leave and other aspects of the treatment of women in the workplace?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
It would seem reasonable for the government to mandate childcare for women working in companies. I realize that it is more difficult for smaller firms and this might be an argument to take the whole process out of the hands of employers and make it a government effort. Right now, the system is so inefficient. As a result, the highly educated and well paid women are able to take off whenever they feel like it and they feel like the system works. But beneath you have this incredibly strained lower and middle income group of workers. They are invisible to the upper class. Those women can’t leave the workforce if they have children. Think about it! How can you take care of newborns if you are constantly worrying about money, if you are constantly under tremendous stress because of work? Some of that onus should be with the employer—although it would be much better to have the government involved.
It is a silent struggle for women, childcare that leads women to choose not to have children. Women do not have the freedom to express themselves. If there is no preparation at the workplace to help them take care of their children, they feel there really is no way to work and raise children and so you end up with the sort of crisis that Korea is facing today: no children. The cost of supporting childcare is really not that great.
But the lack of funding to support childcare is strange. If people commute in to work from the suburbs, if they need to watch television, we have no problem building incredibly expensive highway systems, investing in the infrastructure for shopping malls, power plants, etc. Why is it that we cannot make similar investments in providing for the needs of women so as to strengthen our families?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
Well, first we must look at the problem in a long term manner, not in a shortsighted manner. Women play a critical role for our nation’s future. Women’s role of raising the next generation of workers and leaders, is as critical, more critical than what the Pentagon, or the police or the Commerce Department does. If you have to get workers to work, you build highways. No problem securing budgets for that. But we are not taking the time to create low-stress environments for women, that is a terrible mistake. We have the funds to make that sort of a change already, but we have done a terrible job in the United States
Women have had less power in the workplace than men, but in fact they do more than men in almost every respect. We are on the edge of a major social revolution. In the US, already, women have taken over. Women do better than men at work, they outperform men at assignments and they do better in school. More women than men finish university in the United States today.
We need to understand that those women workers are our best workers, and we need them to have the time to properly raise the next generation. So it is reasonable to invest heavily in women.
In Korea as well women are now outperforming men in the workplace and in school. The changes are immense.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
We have women in America opting out of certain professions because they want children and families. This is a terrible loss. Although women working in math and medicine are increasing in numbers, these women are not becoming surgeons or engineers; there are many fields in which women are not well represented—although women could play an important role and offer a different perspective. That situation is a real loss because women can do a better job, and they often take more considerate approach to work. Surgeon is a hard job, but it does not have to be that way. We could have more human, more compassionate, surgeons.We are losing good people.
Korea is more patriarchal than the United States. Fifty years ago there really were no women in any positions of authority in Korea. There is a very short history of women serving as leaders in this country and women often do not have real mentors in their careers. But the changes are immense now. If you look ahead down the line we will have a female-dominated society here in Korea in the next decade. There has been no preparation for that transfer, especially with regards to welfare.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
The situation of women in Korea sounds similar to the United States. Maybe in some symbolic sense women have received more attention in the US than in Korea, but we also are not prepared for these shifts. Many men make more money than their husbands, but the gender divides remain in daily life. The changes have not been large enough in terms of taking care of the household. Men are still not helping with cooking, shopping, cleaning and caring for children.
Ultimately the problem is that our culture changes so very slowly, but these demographic changes are extremely rapid. We just cannot keep up with the changes in our society. We have these old, old habits; men’s behave is based on what they learned from their parents. It is much harder to change those habits and it is something government cannot simply mandate.
What about housing? The cost of housing has gone up in Korea, in part because of speculation. Houses are not really about living in, they are about making money, even trying to get a future retirement fund. So many people can no longer afford housing at all in Korea. They find themselves in a very difficult situation indeed. What can the role of government be with regards to housing?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
In the case of the United States, we tend to favor people who can afford to buy houses, the mortgage deduction gives special tax advantages to those who own over those who rent—even advantages to those who buy a second home! It is not fair.
Speculation in real estate has a lot do to with the problem of housing in the United States. I live in Oakland and the housing market crashed here. Many people lost their homes to banks. I have a friend who is now trying to buy a house. She tells me that many of the houses that she has seen belonged previously to people who could not meet the payments and the banks foreclosed on them (because the owner cannot pay the mortgage). So then the bank takes over the house, repaints it and puts it back on the market for $100,000 more than its previous price. Banks are taking over hundreds of houses and then selling them for a profit.
Why can’t we just let ordinary people buy these houses? Why do ordinary people not have even have a chance to bid on them when they are foreclosed on? This systematic speculation is exactly what is keeping the price of houses up.
The housing market should be exclusively for homeowners, and not for banks to speculate. Housing should be about people, not about making money. Let house be about homes. You do not need middle men, speculators, who drive up the price.
In Korea speculation has driven up land costs to the point at which ordinary people cannot even afford rent in the city. The implications are serious.
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
Someone who is struggling to survive pays high rates. But the person next door who can own land gets all sorts of breaks in taxes. This is just wrong. It makes no sense. Basically the incentives are in the wrong place. We know that politicians and high-level policy makers benefit directly from these policies.
In California we do have rent control to slow down the rate at which rent can be increased. We need those controls to avoid chaos.
What do you think about the role of government in providing government housing?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
So the issue of government housing is complex in America—but that is perhaps because the social divides are much worse in America than in Korea. We have had many disasters in the United States, such cases as the Cabrini-Green public housing complex in Chicago. These public housing projects were immense failures, the money ran out, the complexes were not maintained, and they fell into disarray. One issue we must consider with regards to public housing is long-term planning. We really need to be thinking one hundred years into the future when making plans for public housing. We cannot just do it for one politician’s short-term goal. We need a mechanism to represent the needs of ordinary people beyond the next election.
It would be better if everyone could just make enough money to buy their own house, but that is simply not how our economy works. We have a lot of people we cannot afford housing. We have people who are homeless who need housing. And then there are the homeless who need mental health services and they have been deprived of care. They need to be cared for separately—and it is a different issue than working poor.
What about work? Actually the number one issue brought up by politicians in Korea today is “job creation.” I hear that theme every day. But what does that mean and can government really help much?
The government is under pressure to start programs to help people, young people, get jobs. But most of these programs are very ineffective. What is there that the government can do?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
What the government can do is in part related to where we find ourselves in the economic cycle.
Let us consider the present moment. We find ourselves now four years into this recession. There is very high employment, and even more for teenagers. In the case of teenagers, they leave the labor force in despair. There really are no opportunities for young people. Why is that? Well jobs for youth has been a problem since the 1990s. But now in the US and start working in a depressed economy, your lifetime earnings will always be reduced. There will never be any way to catch up. So not helping youth is not just a matter of today—it is matter of the life of the individual.
There have been government policies we could have followed that would have made a difference. Specifically, the policy that Germany adopted of “work share” to deal with unemployment has been extremely effective. The government took money that was meant for unemployment benefits and used it to reduce the number of hours worked but maintain the salary—then share the jobs at the same salary among more people. If we had policies to make real investments on jobs it would make all the difference. To have kids out of college sitting for two, three four years doing nothing is a very serious situation. I hope Korea will take this issue of real employment for youth seriously.
Even more than the problem of youth, the entire social welfare in the United States breaks down when you have extremes of wealth and poverty. What counts as social welfare in one group is not relevant in the other realm. There are Medicare benefits, for example, that require a lawyer to use. So rich people use them!
In the United States increasingly we have two un-connected economies. There is an upper middle class economy, and you may be hurting in that economy and looking for solutions. But even at the worst, you are nowhere near the lower economy. There is another economy out there in which the best is still way below what counts as the worst state for the upper economy.
I know we have all had the experience of feeling sorry for ourselves for what we don’t have. Then we think of those who are really poor and suddenly a voice comes in our head and says, “Well that does not really count.” As long as we have such divisions, welfare will be difficult. How can we include everyone?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
So the question is: how did the US create this middle class? How did we lift up workers to enjoy some of the benefits of stability and education? Some people say it was the policies of the New Deal, and Ahn Cholsoo has recently mentioned the New Deal his book. Some say it was rather the Second World War, the war economy, that built the middle class. In any case, it is clear that it was government spending that drove the growth of the middle class. That is where we have to start.
I would love it if the private sector stepped forward to develop the economy, but that simply is not happening. But private industry and government is now not working for the people.
Ahn Chulsoo cites Franklin Roosevelt, but the world today is truly different than what it was in the 1930s. This is a different world. Can we still use those sorts of welfare policies?
Sylvia A. Allegretto:
Globalization does introduce new problems. But the essential problem in the United States is that we are told by the media, by companies, that there is no money, but in fact there is plenty of money out there.
We have incredible wealth in America there. There are large budgets for the government to spend on defense, on bailing out investment banks. The same is true for Korea. There is plenty of money in government to address the problems of welfare, education and housing. The problem is simply one of priorities, of political will.
We need to worry about our children right now. We must make sure they can have the best education possible and that their parents feel secure. That is the true long-term interest of the country and there should be no limit to the amount we are willing to invest for that purpose.
This idea that we should shrink the role of government is a political battle, just that. If government is well run, and focused on essential issues, it can make a difference. The free market will not work.
Germany kept up demand by focusing on employment. That was a far healthier decision. In the US, the decision to sit by and watch as people lost their homes to banks, the same banks who had created the bubbles for their own profit—that was traumatic.
Government should help a large swath of Americans, not just a small number of the rich. Financial bubbles and government bailouts go way back.
YTN News recently aired coverage of the seminar co-held with GCS International concerning the “31st Anniversary of the UN International Day of Peace”, 2 November 2012, on the topic of the “Approaches to the resolution of conflict: role of global civil society in constructing a peaceful community.” Chaired by Secretary General Cho Cheolje, speakers included Yury N. Sayamov, UNESCO chair and professor at Lomonosov Moscow State University; Lakhvinder Singh, president of the Indo-Korea Policy Forum; Tenzi Sherpa, general secretary and chair of TFT for promotion of Nepal abroad; and The Asia Institute’s Emanuel Pastreich. Click here to watch the video excerpt.
The world faces a remarkable number of conflicts today that call for a global effort to bring about a long-term resolution. The Global Common Society (GCS) and The Asia Institute have undertaken a concerted effort to identify effective strategies for engaging a variety of stakeholders through work with NGOs and educational institutions to lay the foundation for long-term engagement. In commemoration of the 31st Anniversary of the UN International Day of Peace, GCS and The Asia Institute hold a seminar to discuss how the global civil society create the precedent for a global culture that promotes peace.