My #10 most viewed posts of 2016


Looking back at my writing this year is bittersweet. Much of what concerns me about the current state of the world was also a great spur for writing. In previous years I often had to look hard for topics to write about. In 2016, they seemed to come in waves, each hitting me in the face and then yelling at me for not having written about them yet. My problem, therefore, has generally been focusing on any one topic long enough to fashion it into a post. An upshot of this is that I have lots of half-written posts that may finally get finished in 2017.

They are mostly about religion and covering that topic is my writing resolution for the next 12 months. It seems to be one of the few subjects at the moment where I can find readily find hope, not only for the hereafter but also in the possibility of (re)building actual existent communities in the present. That might go some way towards addressing the sense of dislocation that propelled so many people towards the political extremes this year.

And it is of course politics that dominates this list: lots on Brexit, the US elections and reviving liberalism. Weirdly, however, the other topic that has done remarkably well is music. I say weird because I hardly ever write about it. When I do it has tended to be to share factoids. As far as I can recall there are only two occasions on which I attempted something more ambitious. They were both on Leonard Cohen, both written within the past few months and both take top slots in this list.

Aside from the posts below, my favourites and the one on which I got the best feedback were on the folly of thinking Britain is a boat rather than an island and another reflecting on my feelings towards the US following Trump’s victory. I also really liked Rob’s piece on the Stop the War Coalition’s ‘curious’ comfort with non-Western militarism.

As always, thank you for reading. I could do write in a notebook or keep it is a word document but there’s something about having an audience that makes it seem more worthwhile. I know that the internet means you have literally unimaginable choice as to what to read but you have chosen to spend a small part of your time on my writing and that makes me intensely grateful.


#10 Liberalism for pessimists

Irving Kristol once quipped that a conservative is “a liberal who’s been mugged by reality”. But as we’ve seen there’s a hard headed case for liberalism. What makes for authoritarianism is not scepticism about humanity but selective optimism that gives some the right to rule over others. The central liberal insight is that power is dangerous – whoever has it.”

#9 Don’t confuse liberalism with radicalism

I don’t think that presenting a depressing case for liberalism has been a concious mission of mine this year but I seem to have been doing it

#8 A Very British Assassination

Speaking of depressing topics, probably my saddest post of the year was in response to the murder of Jo Cox. A review of MPs being murdered led me to conclude “….it’s important that we grasp that Britons have no special immunity to violence. The UK is not a theatre in which it is safe to shout fire. If you dehumanise an other – be they immigrants or the Tories – you are putting them at risk. If you suggest that our democracy is so broken that change is impossible, you may find someone drawing the implication that it is acceptable to try and force change. And if you present ordinary political disputes as matters of extreme – perhaps existential – importance then maybe someone will take you at your word and react disproportionately.”

#7 Now What?

My ten step plan for dealing with the aftermath of the Brexit vote. I think it mostly holds up.

#6 Bernie Sanders: He’s not the Messiah, He’s a very muddled guy

Disparaging Senator Sanders’ run for the presidency became a recurring theme of mine. This was my most sustained and policy heavy go at the topic. It mostly centred on the revelation that the funding for his medicare for all proposal – the centrepiece of his policy platform  – relied on reducing the federal government’s spending on drugs to less than zero.

#5 Chinese stereotypes of Europe

This was essentially just me republishing an infographic from Foreign Policy. Autocomplete options from China’s largest search engine indicate that Bulgarian’s milk induced longevity is apparently a thing.

#4 Would Edmund Burke be for Leave or Remain?

“That makes Brexit an unjustified gamble, which in turn makes it a profoundly unconservative thing to do. It is therefore be surprising that so many members of the Conservative Party back it. And furthermore that they do it in such a thoroughly unconservative way. Rather than wisdom and caution they offer bravado. Rather than warning of the dangers, they ridicule those who do as “merchants of doom” who can be ignored because…uhh…Britain. You will search Burke and Oakeshott’s writings in vain for a passage explaining how exclamations of national machismo can substitute for the hard work of policy making and institution building. Yet that is what many self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ are in fact doing.”

#3 He understood the darkness: on Leonard Cohen and depression

“When my attempts to explain my illness would fall flat, I’d often wish I could just get out my phone, open up Spotify and play them some Leonard Cohen. If you’ve heard any of his songs, that won’t necessarily come as surprise. He could dramatise misery like a master, hence his songs are exactly the kind of thing that in ordinary language we call ‘depressing’. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t just writing sad songs. He was writing about a specific kind of sadness I recognised.”

#2  My Iowa caucus predictions

I guessed that “the press will overreact to the result on the Democratic side” and that “whatever the outcome in Iowa the [Republican] race will remain turbulent”. The second one was clearly true, still unsure about the other.

#1 Leonard Cohen should have got Bob Dylan’s nobel prize

It is of course fate that the post the most people see is the one I begin by explaining why I shouldn’t be writing it. Nonetheless, I take it as a vindication of the argument that a lot of people were searching around online for someone to articulate it.

6 words my students consider Christmas words and what that tells you about Christmas in Korea (Cable from Korea #9)

Asking economists about gift-giving misses the point

If we just bought ourselves stuff that would probably be more efficient but efficiency isn’t the point

It is the time of year for writers at publications that major on economics, finance and policy to trot out the economic case against gift giving.

These articles largely recycle the intellectual labour of the economist Joel Waldfogel. He has argued that:

As an economist, I see gift giving as a method of resource allocation that is entirely free of all of the good disciplines that we usually attribute to economic decision-making.

Normally we only make purchases for ourselves if we see something that’s worth more than the price. If we see something that costs $100, we buy it only if it’s worth at least $100. So normally, spending actually creates satisfaction. In fact, in dollar terms, normally the satisfaction associated with any amount of spending exceeds the amount of spending that occurs.

With gift giving, I’m buying something for someone else, so I don’t impose that discipline — I can’t, really. I don’t know what you want. I don’t know what you need. So I can spend $100 on you, and I might turn out to be unlucky and buy something that’s worth, well, in the worst case, nothing to you.

You can pick holes in this as an economic theory. For example, you might know less about my preferences than I do but you are also familiar with a different range of good and services than I am. For example, my secret santa from a few years ago knew fewer details of my love of Star Wars than I did. However, she did know that I loved Star Wars and that she could buy a coffee mug that looked like R2D2! Routinely making purchases that someone prefers to what they would likely be impossible but doing it once or twice a year feels doable. To be fair, Professor Waldfogel has used survey evidence to get empirical evidence to support his theory, so I am prepared to accept that the effect he highlights predominates over the effect I just highlighted.

However, that is only a knockdown argument if what we do indeed “see gift giving as a method of resource allocation.” That this is how Professor Waldfogel thinks in these terms is unsurprising. He is a microeconomist and that discipline is essentially geared towards assessing the costs and benefits of commercial transactions in a marketplace. The test it uses for that is whether the greatest quantity and quality of stuff  has been got into the right hands at the lowest cost. But this perspective only deals with half of the issue at hand. Gifts may come from the commercial realm but they do not stay there. You may buy a gift from a commercial entity – creating a conventional buyer and seller relationship – but that gift then moves out of the marketplace and into the more personal domain of families and friendships.

At this point, it starts making more sense to listen to anthropologists than economists, and they have built an entire subfield exploring gift giving and how it fits into a broader pattern of social relationships. This confirms what your intuition probably suggests, that we give gifts not only to get people more stuff they want but also to reinforce social bonds. It is, therefore, a mistake to think of the benefits of gift giving as the combined value of individual gifts minus their costs. Rather it is that plus the sense of reciprocity and solidarity created by the ritual of gift giving.

For example, Professor Waldfogel worries that the most wasteful gifts are those giving out of a sense of obligation to people we don’t have much contact with. But isn’t part of the point of giving them a gift to say that ‘despite our limited contacted I still feel a bond with you from which obligations arise’

To be fair to Professor Waldfogel, he does acknowledge the wider social context of gift giving and says that:

It can make both givers and recipients happy in ways that buying for oneself might not. So jumping to the conclusion that people should stop giving gifts is by itself is not necessarily warranted.

As that last sentence indicates, despite the fact that his articles often get given the headlines like “the economic argument for never giving another gift” he does not appear to actually believe that gift-giving is bad per se. Rather, he advocates doing it better by, for example, buying people you don’t know that well gift cards or making a donation to charity.

So popular economics writers this season give economists the gift of not reinforcing the stereotype of them as a bunch of Scrooges and stop writing these irritating articles.

Cable from Korea #7: The fall of the house of Park

The ‘shaman’ scandal that brought down President Park Geun-hye illustrates many of the weaknesses of Korean society but also the vitality of its democracy.


Teddy Cross

The competition for strangest political story of 2016 is a tough: Donald Trump is now leader of the free world, the Prime Minister of India decided to nullify the value of close to 90% of the Rupee notes in circulation and the leader of the famously Catholic Philippines is now a guy who called Pope Francis a ‘son of a whore’.  However, the ‘prize’ probably goes to South Korean president Park Geun-Hye being impeached for abusing her office to benefit her shaman.

Ms Park gave this shaman, a woman by the name of Choi Soon-Sil, access to classified briefing materials including, it appears, some relating to North Korea. In addition, Choi ran charitable foundations and leveraged her connection to the president to get donations from a succession of large Korean companies including Samsung and Hyundai. Choi then embezzled from these foundations. In response to the discovery of these improprieties, the Korean parliament impeached her and as of Friday the prime minister has taken over as acting president. The Constitutional Court could still reinstate her but that seems unlikely.

The best and most evocative account of this truly bizarre scandal comes from Ask a Korean. I’d seriously recommend you go away and read it. It’s one of the best pieces of political writing I’ve seen this year. It captures not only the strange details of the case – like Choi’s personal trainer being appointed as presidential aide – bust also why a Korean public rather inured to accusations of corruption by their politicians have turned on Park so decisively. In addition, it shows real empathy for Ms Park.

At the root of her present predicament is that she lost a parent to an assassin’s bullet not once but twice.

Her father is probably the most divisive figure in modern Korean history. He became leader of South Korea shortly after the horror of the invasion by the North. His rule lasted for almost two decades. At the beginning the country was devastated by war, vulnerable to another invasion and poorer than the average sub-Saharan country. By the end, its economy had pulled ahead of the North’s and it was well on the way to becoming the modern affluent country it is today. However, the elder Park was also a military strongman responsible for many human rights abuses. He was eventually killed by his own intelligence chief whilst contemplating an even more intense crackdown on democratic activity.

However, it is the slaying of Park’s mother five years prior to these events that is most directly relevant to her relationship with Choi Soon Sil. A North Korean sympathiser attempted to kill General Park whilst he gave a speech to commemorate Korea’s Independence Day but he botched the attack and having been wounded by the president’s security team, began shooting wildly. One of these shots struck and killed Park’s mother.  It is at this point that Choi’s family enters the story. Her father might (generously) be described as a ‘religious entrepreneur’. He approached the distraught Park telling her that he was able to communicate with her mother. This seems to have led to Park becoming emotionally dependent on him and then when he passed away on his daughter. Given this situation it is hard not to see Park as a victim as well as perpetrator, and the Chois as vultures feeding off Park’s pain for their personal gain.

However, notwithstanding her personal tragedy, she’s clearly done more than enough to justify her impeachment and has few defenders. I live in the region that is the bastion of her conservative Saenuri party. Despite this few of my Korean friends and acquaintances have been willing to speak in her defence and none has been prepared to do so with any enthusiasm. The far more common response has been a mixture of fury and, when forced to discuss it with a foreigner, acute embarrassment.

Which is no small matter in Korea. I am wary of pseudo-anthological generalisations about national cultures, but I do feel comfortable asserting that Korean society places a real premium on maintaining ‘face’ and a deep sense of shame generally results when this is not possible. This seems to apply not only to individuals but also to the nation as a whole, which apparently requires a large amount of validation by the rest of the world. The government spends large sums of money promoting its culture abroad. The global success of K-pop and K-drama is both a source of great pride and the product of deliberate marketing by both private and public sectors. Within the country itself, one of the pre-eminent measures of one’s social standing is your aptitude for English. For example, even businesses that have few, if any, non-Korean customers still plaster their store fronts with English signs to demonstrate their sophistication. One result of this is that billions of dollars are spent on English education, much of which goes on bringing foreigners like me over from the west to teach in the country to share our cultural capital with young Koreans.

In this climate, it is considered to Ms Park’s considerable discredit that she has exposed so many of the flaws of Korean society to global attention. For weeks now, the world’s media has been interrogating the high levels of political corruption, the prevalence of pseudo-Christian cults, and the overweening power of a few huge conglomerates and their intermeshing with the government. Even the national fixation on educational credentials has been noticed, because the roots of Ms Choi’s unmasking lay in her attempts to get her unqualified daughter into an elite university demonstrating, as Ask a Korean says that “If there is one thing that Koreans [care about] more than their lives, it is their (and their children’s) college degree.” This worldwide airing of their dirty linen has clearly been painful for Koreans. The disposition they frequently adopt when talking about the scandal is to stare down at the floor or table, put their hands to their temple as if trying to hide their face, and repeat the mantra: “shameful, so shameful”.

If the antics of Ms Park and Ms Choi have not exactly been a great advert for South Korea, the crisis they’ve begat has paradoxically demonstrated the durability and maturity of its democracy. A few months ago, even eminent and sensible western publications were publishing pieces with headlines like: Is South Korea Regressing Into a Dictatorship?and to note that “President Park Geun-hye is squelching protests, suing journalists, and jailing opposition politicians.” Events have obviously shown this to be a misplaced fear. But it is not simply that the scandal came along and stopped dead a shift to authoritarianism. Rather the response has shown such a shift was always high unlikely. The Korean public is clearly willing to fight for good government. The anti-Park protests that made her impeachment an inevitability were enormous, at their peak including over two million people or almost 5% of the Korean population. Not only were they peaceful but so well organised and disciplined that the protesters arranged to clean up their own litter.

Media and prosecutors sometimes assumed to be supine and unwilling to challenge the country’s elites have swung into action. Many Saenuri law makers have acted in both the nation’s and their own interests by backing the impeachment. A major political convulsion appears to have passed without a major impact on the day to day running of government or lasting damage to financial markets. More broadly, the decline in support for democratic values seen amongst western electorates, appears to not to have affected their Korean counterparts.

So not only is Ms Park’s presidency over but so is the system of government her family name represents. Korea still faces real challenges, most obviously from North Korea, but also an aging population, a disaffected youth and economic model that has probably outlived its usefulness. South Korea will need to make tough decisions about its future. But I’m confident it will make them democratically.

‘Choigate’ may have been lurid, it may have been painful for Korea and it may have served as a showcase for many of its worse aspects, but the nation has dealt with this once in a generation crisis like a mature democracy should. Which leads me to believe that democracy is in better shape in South Korea than it is in the bulk of the West.



*I don’t know if former Korean presidents retain their titles like American ones do. Under the circumstances, I am disinclined to grant Ms Park an honorific unless I am sure she deserves it.