eyes on the U.S.

What Watching Whistleblowers Tells Us About Ourselves

Why did he do that? And if you ever thought to do the same...?

Edward Snowden
Edward Snowden
Rinny Gremaud

GENEVA - Why are the whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning making people so uncomfortable?

Here’s the story of a 29-year-old man living with his girlfriend in Hawaii, making $200,000 a year, who one day decides to set himself on fire professionally and socially in the name of democracy. When this man talks to the camera, he articulates his wish to no longer be the nodding cog in a devilish machine. It will cost him everything -- but such is the price to follow his “moral compass,” that ethical internal ear that is quite highly developed for the whistleblowers of his kind.

First reaction: Admiration. What an incredible display of abnegation, a true sense of self-sacrifice from this young man! This is what heroes are made of.

Then comes the slight collective feeling of awkwardness. Suspicion, even. There has to be something wrong in this man’s life, maybe that’s just how he is. Maybe it’s some kind of narcissism, paranoia perhaps, or just another guy with a Jesus complex. For all we know, his girlfriend had just dumped him or his boss said something mean to him and he overreacted. Who just snaps like that? Someone, we tell ourselves, who probably suffers from a great unidentified perversion.

What would you have done?

Edward Snowden, the man who brought the NSA to its knees, is about to be handed over to the two-bit psychological profilers. Details on his private life will leak soon enough, exposing to the world that the knight in shining armor is in fact flawed and that his motivations were not that noble. It happened to Bradley Manning, whose trial started a week ago. Brad Birkenfeld, who exposed fraud at Swiss bank UBS, had to go through the same process, but he got away with it quite well -- just like the other whistleblowers who all suffered from difficult social experiences.

One of them talked to the British daily The Guardian about the five nails on the whistleblower’s cross: 1) You’re ignored, 2) You’re discredited, 3) You’re fired, 4) You’re publicly shamed, 5) Your friends and family turn their backs on you.

All of this, for the record, is perfectly depicted by Michael Mann in the movie The Insider, the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a former executive from the tobacco industry who had revealed his company’s manipulations to make sure the cigarettes were produced in a way to be ever more addictive.

Why are the whistleblowers making everyone uncomfortable? Probably because it’s the nature of our society to keep its distance with the insubordinate, those people who place their judgment above the rules of the community. But wait, there’s more to it. Maybe it’s this way of putting every one of us in front of our responsibilities. We end up asking ourselves: What would I have done if I were in his place? What kind of machinery am I fueling, doing what I do? Every single day I do what I’m told, but in the end, am I not contributing to making this world worse than it is? Is my salary a monthly bribe to keep my mouth shut? Should I ask for a raise?

I’m not writing this just for the bankers, the business lawyers, the tax specialists and the CIA agents reading this newspaper. The truth is we can all ask ourselves those questions. The tricky part is that with the twists of history, the shifting sands of power and laws, no one can ever be sure that he or she has the right answer.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

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.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


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

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

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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