The Personal Dimension of the Conflict

Two things have been on my mind today regarding yesterday’s events (Brinkmanship in my backyard):

The first is the fact that there are pundits on television back home calling for some kind of “I say nuke ’em” policy.  The person my link is quoting has absolutely zero credibility in my eyes, but I’m concerned that there are people who either think that he is credible or that the words coming out of his mouth are going to make them rich.  Both reasons for giving that man a soap box to shout from are disgraceful.  Aside from Michael Scheuer’s inclinations toward bombing anywhere that doesn’t fit into his conception of a global order where every country must be dominated either by U.S. personnel or the jurisdiction of the WTO, there are others self-righteously calling for the U.S. to strike first.

This is simply abhorrent.  Forcing escalation will only, obviously, cause escalation.  In order to justify forcing escalation you have to have made the decision that the North will invade regardless.  There’s nothing like preempting those you perceive to be irrational actors by acting irrationally yourself!

These people speak as though there are not people involved.  They act as though the North and the South are merely shapes on a map where a few leaders are involved in a high-stakes game.  They forget that on this peninsula, there are people on the North and the South.  Only this forgetting can allow you to make such absurd calls to arms.

The second thing on my mind has been what one of my students told me this afternoon.  For a few classes a week I get to do one-on-one tutoring with the smartest kid in our school.  I asked him, before we started the lesson, what he thought of the artillery strikes.  His response blew me away.  He said that he was not worried.  He had two very impressive reasons (especially for a 13 year old).

The first reason he gave me: that he knows that most of the people on both sides do not want anybody to die, and that there are just a few people here and there who either forget or don’t understand that.

The second reason: that if the situation comes to him dying, he is alright with it, because he has so far lived his life the best he could.  To this, my jaw dropped.  Not out of awe or confusion at his calculation but because I, too, make the same judgement about death.  I fished for where he may have been influenced to say such a profound thing about life, and he insisted that it was his own idea.  Not only did I find a profound connection to his view on life and death and my own, but I also gained an insight into the way that life continues despite the heightened risks to that very way of life.

Today’s duet of insights provide a valuable lesson: that beneath all of this international posturing, artillery fire, punditry and fear there are people.  There are people going to school, waking up the kids, working at markets, drinking soju, writing blogs; there are people living.

The best thing to do in this situation (on top of pointing out publicly the ridiculousness of placing all of our lives at risk) is to keep on living.  I know this is obvious and perhaps cliche.  We heard all of this when 9/11 happened.  We will always hear the call to just keep on in the light of the most existential of threats.  Cliche or not, I think it’s a good thing to repeat.

Here are two good blog posts on the subject:

Korea: Border Incident from Byron and his backpacks

and Thank you K-pop for the prayers

Brinkmanship in my back yard

Brinkmanship (forgive me for using wikipedia): “the practice of pushing dangerous events to the verge of disaster in order to achieve the most advantageous outcome.”

Also: what is happening right now, only 50 miles away from me.  Sure, it has been happening for years on this peninsula.  Sure, there hasn’t been an escalation since the end of the original conflict in 1950.  However, there hasn’t been any resolution to the conflict.

The desired outcome? I’m not exactly sure.  From some of what I’ve read, the North’s primary goal is to eliminate the government in the South and be declared the only governing force in Korea.  From other things I’ve read, they are actually interested in diplomatic compromise: something along the lines of (1) recognition as a legitimate nuclear state, (2) guarantees of “election-proof” consistency from the U.S., (3)some kind of compromise between the need to open their borders and trade to provide life-sustaining opportunities for growth and the real possibility that such an opening will cause the demise of the regime.  I think, of the 3 options, only the first is something the United States and South Korea would even consider.  Even this is a stretch, as I don’t think anybody but China or maybe Venezuela is in favor of calling a nuclearized North Korea “legitimate.”

Today’s clash involved the North delivering roughly 200 rounds for about an hour followed by a response of 80 shells from the South.  Two South Korean soldiers have been killed and several others have been wounded.  This comes at a time when tensions are already high: North Korea is asserting itself as a young nuclear state while it is preparing for new leadership.  The North is even claiming that the South fired first, citing the military exercises that began today.  They claim that any violation of their territory deserves a swift and powerful response.  This means that if there is territory under dispute, activity that the South presumes to be neutral could indeed provoke the North to lash out in unpredictable and destructive ways.

There are domestic reasons for their actions as well.  The North is preparing for a new leader, Kim Jung-Il’s youngest son.  It is possible that this is some kind of exercise done with the intention of proving his power and perhaps of solidifying the need for continuing their strong emphasis on the military.  These domestic variables may overcome any of the international variables that I posited before, but this is all just ungrounded theorizing.  If it is the case that the bombardment of the island is a result of the internal needs of the north, the brinksmanship theory is out of the question because that assumes rational actors.

For now, we are stuck in this chess game of munitions where we (those of us on the south side) cannot really be sure about the mindset, the intentions or the capabilities of the other side.

The people at my work say that this “happens all the time.”  I was aware before I moved here that there were tensions.  I knew that the North had sunk a ship in March.  Within weeks of arriving here, they had already fired shots across the DMZ, and today they started what I consider a very serious artillery campaign against an island only 50 miles from me.  Maybe I am paranoid, but I think I can hear airplanes from my building.  The government in the South is presently holding a special meeting and fighter jets have already been deployed to the Island.  The South Korean President is promising a “firm” response.  Some people in my city are warning that foreigners should get ready to leave, others are assuming it is just another blemish in the decades long conflict.

At school, the students seemed to go about their business just fine.  In the teacher’s office, everybody was reassuring us that things would be just fine at the same time as everybody’s attention was focused on the situation.  Walking home, I noticed that the TV’s in the markets and restaurants were all focused on the incident- as they should be.  Tomorrow will be another day, and I can only hope that I don’t have to leave my new home because of an unnecessary and unprovoked aggression.

The embassy has not issued any instructions, only a notice to stand by for further information.  I’ll leave you with the same: if you are at home or here in Korea, stand by for more information.

I understand that the chance of escalation is quite low, but playing this game is still disgustingly annoying.

The New Indentured Servitude

It’s the first of the month, that means I pay a lot of bills.  I hate paying bills.  Money in and money out, all the time.  I don’t need a lecture reminding me that that is in fact how the world works; I know this.  I have accepted this.  I just aggressively and stubbornly reserve my right to complain.

I find student loans to be one of the most tragic and significant problems of our era.  I have recently been exposed to the idea that student loans are the new indentured servitude.  Dissent Magazine published an article titled “Student Debt and The Spirit of Indenture” by Jeffrey J. Williams in their fall 2008 volume.  In the article, Williams presents a persuasive arrangement of arguments that tie the experience of those currently bound to student loan debt to the historically significant experience of the indentured servant.

I’ll briefly recap the history of indentured servitude. As I recall, immigrants from Europe who could not afford the cost of the voyage to America would contract their labor for 3 to 7 years in exchange for the costs of the voyage. The logic is simple; the opportunity of what is to come after 7 years is calculated to be worth the sacrificed time and freedom. Doesn’t sound so bad?

“This is not to soft-peddle indentured servitude. Indentured servitude was a violent contract, with physical torture used to coerce labor. As economist DW Galenson noted, “The Company clearly felt that [beaten workers running away] threatened the continued survival of their enterprise, for they reacted forcefully to this crime. In 1612, the colony’s governor dealt firmly with some recaptured laborers: ‘Some he apointed to be hanged. Some burned. Some to be broken upon wheles, others to be staked and some to be shott to death.’” (The Atlantic)

Ok, so it’s not like it was in 1612…But with student loans–the only means of financing college for those of us whose parents are either not wealthy enough or willing enough to fund it for us–the contract is for much longer. Even with a debt of only $30,000 (I’m saddened that I can put the word only before that), it is a binding 15 year contract that dictates many of your life decisions. The sacrifice here is for labor; the reward is increased life-long pay (or in the way that I am justifying it- enlightenment, or a very expensive form of intellectual exploration). Surely, the loan recipient is likely to take up a lifetime of labor no matter what, and that is good; we all should work. But the immense amount of debt that some students take on deprives them of the freedom to work a job that might be fulfilling but pay less, requiring them to take on a job that is unfulfilling but pays enough to get by. It also severely limits an individual’s economic freedom and mobility. Most entry-level jobs don’t pay more than $3,000 a month.  There are obvious exceptions to this, and I am only basing my observation my personal experience and the experience of my many entry-level peers.  The bottom line is, we were told that our education would land us a job that would make repayment of this debt easy.  The legend of the university education is, however, far from the reality.

If a person financed a four-year private education, they will have roughly $600-700 monthly payments. Rent in Minneapolis, for example, is probably $500 to $900 for the most basic of living situations. Taxes take at least $400/month. A decent diet, means of transportation, and having a little extra for yourself can range from $200 to $500 a month.  Health insurance can be $100 to $300/month.   Here we have an estimated $1,700 to $2,550 range for monthly costs.  If your entry-level job pays only $2,000 a month (which is the case for me), that means living paycheck to paycheck. If you adjust the monthly income to account for the loan payments, the $2,000/month hypothetical is actually only making $1,400 a month, or 8.75/hour.  After years of education, I expect more than that, especially considering that my first job at the age of 16 back in 2003 paid $8 assembling bicycles.

Back to the thesis: quite simply, it’s indentured servitude because it is a loan secured not by property but by personhood, with an incredibly long term and little legal escape.   What’s worse is that they allow you to begin signing yourself over at a vulnerable age of 18, after telling you for years that if you don’t go to college, you won’t amount to much.  For most of your young adult life, your decisions will be overshadowed by the presence of an overwhelmingly heavy debt.  If you miss some payments at a young age you will be paying higher interest rates on every form of debt you take on in the future.

Then there is the uncertainty of labor. The Atlantic makes another astute observation comparing student loans to the older form of indentured servitude:

“people under indentured servitude had the job waiting for them. The clock was ticking for the firms who had set up the contract, and they needed to get their value. With student loans, they can sit there for decades, never dischargeable, always getting paid regardless of recession or job market.”

As this excerpt explains, there is another element beyond uncertainty that I mentioned before- lack of legal recourse. Unlike other debts, the consumer cannot resort to bankruptcy. Regardless of the economic conditions or the particulars of a situation- we are nearly unconditionally bound to out educational debt.

The solution offered is quite brilliant. The “FreeHigherEd” solution proposes that the federal government pay for higher education.  This would cost 50 billion a year and “could be paid simply by repealing a portion of the Bush tax cuts or shifting a small portion of the military budget.”  This is incredible.  If anything deserves to be the populist movement of the middle class, this is it.  Education financing has become the means of, not providing opportunity for advancement despite your family and class status and history, but of denying that opportunity and magnifying the stratification of class.

Another solution is income adjusted payments.  This would cap your monthly payments to no more than 8% of your gross income.  For me, this would be a nice improvement as I am currently paying about 27% of my gross monthly income.  Basically, none of this is fair for anybody who is a recent graduate.

I don’t regret getting a BA, I am better off for it. I could have chosen a more affordable school, it’s true, but I didn’t. I take full responsibility for my current situation; holding nearly $100,000 in debt with interest rates ranging from 3% to 6%; I am living paycheck to paycheck.