I live in South Korea, a small crowded prosperous country, a trading empire which is about to become the first nation to sign an FTA with the three biggest economic regions—a land in which you cannot take a step without bumping into a small business (a clothing shop, a cafe, a mom-and-pop restaurant, a noraebang, a pc bang, a computer repair store, an English academy) or a tentacle of a vast sprawling chain (a McDonald’s, a Hyundai dealership or repair center, Samsung, North Face, Starbucks, Jung Chul), or a factory producing ball bearings or superconductors or automobiles or god knows what.
People clog the sidewalks, cars clog the roads, ships crowd the seas, all racing for money, every last one of them. Rest of any sort is death here, and many people claim to be poor, but make more than they know. Some middle-class Koreans I know own several apartments and draw several thousand dollars of rent from them every month, but they consider themselves on the cusp of destitution (thanks to the trauma of a childhood without food, or maybe thanks to debt), even though American families in the middle class do not own property beyond their immediate homes—which the gambling-addict banks own, if these families are lucky.
Some get left behind. The elderly, in particular, appear to dwell in a different world. I saw an old woman yesterday—while I was racing to deposit my children at daycare, before the younger one, a baby, could begin shrieking in his child-seat—and this old woman was much darker and smaller than the average South Korean, where the youths at least are pale tall beautiful elves dressed in black clothes—she was dark and small and lugging so many bags of garbage in a black wire cart that they almost fell over into the road when she stopped for a moment in the bitter November cold to face down the crosswalk.
This woman, wearing an old purple coat and the face of a refugee, was one of those people making a few hundred dollars a month gathering Korea’s ample supplies of garbage. People just toss it out their car windows or while they’re walking around, and if you ask them why they say it’s because they’re helping those elderly folks who make a glorious living picking up refuse—never mind the idea that you could save more money by recycling your garbage, never mind the Confucian notion that you could keep those people off the streets by paying them one or two thousand dollars a month to rest.
So my wife said to me yesterday, the government’s out of money, and I thought it was crazy to hear that, because Korea is a money factory, a profit-churner. I once heard from a friend that if you managed to get some land here, you had to turn a profit from it in six months or less, or the government takes it from you and sells it to someone who will do better. Businesses are opening everywhere, all the time, and to my eye many of them seem to stay afloat almost magically (or maybe thanks to that debt). Cafes are always empty, but since it costs fifty cents to brew a cup of coffee, and you can charge five or six dollars for that same cup, you can apparently make a modest living, and if the ajummas take a liking to hanging around and talking about their kids’ education in your domain, you’re all set, you can open up new shops all over town, and the ajummas will swarm all over them. I heard cell phone stores do well, since every last person here has a cell phone (only the elderly have resisted the allure of the smart phone), but those are the places that seem to fail the most to me. One closes down after six months, you see a big sad 임대 sign in the window, red and yellow, and then another slightly-different cellphone brand opens in its place.
How—in this country of fifty million people working desperately hard six, seven days a week, for sixty, seventy, eighty years each—how could this country possibly run out of money? There’s nothing Samsung doesn’t make. There’s nowhere on Earth Hyundai cars aren’t packing the roads, no patch of water their ships aren’t roaring, loaded with thousands of tons of cargo. LG TVs are in every home. Apple has no choice but to [design and then buy] microchips from its rivals’ factories. Samsung’s profits have been slipping lately thanks to competition from China and every other direction, its old tyrannical CEO is on his last legs, and his son appears to be as feckless as anyone who magically inherits so much wealth he has to pay six billion dollars in taxes before he can touch it—on top of apartments and factories and machines and tens of thousands of employees and millions of customers, politicians of every nationality stashed in his pockets like candy canes on Christmas, but Samsung is a force of nature, the shareholders will find a way to kick the thirty- or fortysomething child out if he can’t get them enough cash to buy them more private yachts, islands, airplanes, and spaceships.
This country is a nexus of cash, and there is no way on Earth it’s out of money. If a politician says there’s no money to spend on a certain program—free quality daycare for all children, a basic human right, as far as I’m concerned; foreign English teachers in every school, many of them without backgrounds in education or clearly-defined roles (beyond simian tape recorder) in the classroom—that just means he doesn’t want to spend the money on that program, not that the money isn’t there, for if South Korea doesn’t have any money, then there’s no money to be had.