PARIS — The gravity of the situation at the White House grows clearer each day. The anonymous article published by the New York Times in which a high-ranking official from the Trump administration describes the internal resistance, coupled with the publication of "Fear," in which the investigative journalist Bob Woodward, celebrated for his role in uncovering the Watergate scandal, depicts a president who is authoritarian, temperamental, and erratic.
Nevertheless, Donald Trump's popularity rating remains around 45%, a dream of his French counterparts. November's mid-term legislative elections are anything but won by the Democrats. From Europe, we ask ourselves if half of the country has gone crazy.
I spent more than a month in the United State this summer, meeting with intellectuals almost always from the progressive elite, on both the East and West coasts. My impression: the other half of the country has gone completely crazy as well. Among the urban, educated classes, political correctness has acquired such a level that it requires another expression. It's a new set of Ten Commandments of which the first is clear: thou shall repent. The struggle against discrimination, once a weapon for minority emancipation, has been transformed into an instrument of oppression of the majorities (antiquated or supposed), nourished by a climate of suspicion as violent as the "fear" denounced by the opposing camp.
Take, for example, a conference at New America, one of the most respected think tanks in Washington; non-partisan — so, left wing. Question: are Americans abandoning democracy? The discussion moves, without surprise, towards the lack of confidence the public holds for traditional institutions. Then comes time for questions. A participant asks if the problem has anything to do with the fact that the United States was founded by white men. "Absolutely," responded the speaker with enthusiasm. The rest of the panel, composed of professors and researchers, rushed to nod their heads in agreement, for fear of ever being marked as traitors —or even "white supremacists."
How can one have confidence in traditional institutions if their representatives no longer dare to express the smallest divergence of thought?
Another revealing experience: a workshop on "Women in Tech"— a group which is effectively underrepresented. The organizer, a woman, placed us in a line and asked us to take a step if we were white, another if we were male, to step back if we didn't have university degrees, and so on. The result was to create a "scale of privilege" that we were invited to discuss, sitting in a circle like at an Alcoholic's Anonymous meeting. My refusal to admit guilt earned me eternal damnation.
Progressive intellectuals must practice the tolerance that they preach.
This is how the new Ten Commandments reassigns each person to his racial or sexual identity, creating countless occasions of racism and sexism against the desired equality. Universities are tragically invaded by 20-year-old inquisitors (the worst) who make professors rewrite the history of ideas to correspond to the moral norm of today. This dictatorship of the small minority, to use the concept forged by Nassim Taleb, contributes to the slipping of a middle class, made up of honest people, into the nets of Fox News and Donald Trump.
It's worth reading last year's best-seller, "Hillbilly Elegy." J.D. Vance, a "hillbilly," having escaped from his rural poor environment to attend Harvard Law School, tersely describes the degraded living conditions of the Irish proles, as well as the scorn they feel as victims of the media and of politics. They, too, have the right to form a community and to be proud of it, without being treated as "bigots' by New York Times editors or "deplorables' by former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
"Black lives matter," chants one side. "White lives matter," responds the other. Can't everyone agree by simply declaring "lives matter"? Progressive intellectuals must urgently reconnect with the politics of the abstract individual and practice the tolerance that they preach. Otherwise, the divisions of race, sex, and class will continue to tear apart the United States, and, in turn, the whole of Western democracy.
Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.
SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.
The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.
It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.
Seoul housing prices top London and New York
In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.
According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.
Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.
One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.
According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.
Playing the stock market
At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.
A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."
In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.
42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s
Game of survival
In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.
But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.
This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.
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