Thursday, August 14, 2008

Reagan's Timeless Tax Cut

Dressed in jeans, a denim jacket, and cowboy boots, President Ronald Reagan emerged from his humble, hacienda-style adobe ranch house high in the mountains of Santa Barbara. His dog “Millie” by his side, the president walked to the leather-covered patio table and sat down in a chair and faced open pasture. Though this describes many of the 350 days Mr. Reagan spent at Rancho del Cielo during his eight years in office, Aug. 13, 1981, was different.

A large contingent of the press was gathered in front of the ranch house, barricaded by a single piece of rope, awaiting the president’s appearance. Misty fog crawled up the mountain from the Pacific Ocean, and, as Mr. Reagan walked toward the patio table and press corps, he joked that the foggy day was symbolic of the country’s soggy economic state. Positioned on the table in front of him were two stacks of paper that made War and Peace look like a children’s bedtime story.

On that foggy August morning at Rancho del Cielo, Mr. Reagan signed the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981 (ERTA), the largest tax cut in U.S. history. David Broder of the Washington Post called the event “one of the most remarkable demonstrations of presidential leadership in modern history.” Twenty-seven years later, there remains much to learn from Mr. Reagan’s economic policy.

His approach was different from his predecessors. During a time of high unemployment and inflation, not to mention relatively high gas prices, (sounds familiar, right?) Mr. Reagan advocated radical economic reforms. Reducing the marginal tax rates on income, market deregulation, and sound monetary policies to reduce inflation were Mr. Reagan’s main goals.
He rightly believed that slashing the marginal tax rates would create an incentive for people to work, ultimately stimulating the economy.

Over a three-year period, the ERTA reduced taxes across the board by 26 percent. Proving the success of free enterprise, the flow of resources into the market increased which encouraged economic growth. Mr. Reagan’s policies resulted in the largest peacetime economic boom and second-largest period of sustained growth in U.S. history. Creating 35 million more jobs, this boom lasted 92 months without a recession. Ultimately, according to the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, the American economy grew by one-third in real inflation-adjusted terms — the equivalent of adding the entire economies of East and West Germany to the U.S. economy.

There was a reason Mr. Reagan signed this landmark legislation at his beloved “ranch in the sky” and not in Washington, D.C. For him, the ranch represented freedom, opportunity and the ideals of America’s founding. It was here he went to escape the nonsense of Washington politicians and bureaucrats. Mr. Reagan believed that letting the American people keep more of their own money went beyond being a Republican or Democrat issue, it was simply the right thing to do.

Visiting the ranch as a student with Young America’s Foundation, I am powerfully reminded of this historic day 27 years ago today. Gazing out at the ranch pasture, I can’t help but imagine a gaggle of reporters and photographers anxiously awaiting this historic signing, and the millions of Americans who would subsequently benefit.

Mr. Reagan’s economic policy was built upon hope, optimism and trust in the American people. He understood the essential connection between economic and individual freedom, and that a free America is a strong America. It is a lesson I hope and pray is not lost on the 21st century leaders now seeking the same high office.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

First article on Townhall!
Check it out!

Remembering a Hero: Milton Friedman

Few men have had such a profound impact on the world’s economy as Milton Friedman. Though he passed away on November 16, 2006, he left behind an unparalleled legacy of freedom. Today, July 31, 2008 would have been his 96th birthday.

Despite this legacy, students today know little of Friedman’s accomplishments. His profound influence on economic policy is edged aside by politically correct curriculums that emphasize fringe groups and outmoded Marxist ideologies over common sense and sound economic theory.

Last year I attended a conference sponsored by Young America’s Foundation on Milton Friedman, organized in an attempt to balance this one-sided education. This three-day seminar focused on Friedman’s life and works, and it was here I gained a new appreciation of the twentieth century’s greatest economist and advocate of free markets.

As freedom-oriented organizations across the country like Young America’s Foundation today mark “Milton Friedman Day” with events and celebration, I am reminded of the lessons I learned.

Friedman spoke of the dangers of an intrusive government and the key role that a free competitive economy plays in making a free society possible. Not only is economic freedom an end in itself, Friedman rightly argued that it is also an indispensible means towards the achievement of political freedom.

He warned of the disastrous results that occur when government attempts to substitute its own judgment for the judgment of free people. Friedman asked in his famous book, Capitalism and Freedom: “How can we keep the government we create from becoming a Frankenstein that will destroy the very freedom we establish it to protect?” He had a vision of society where men and women are free to choose, but where government is not as free to override their decisions.

It is rare to find someone who has such a high level of intellectual brilliance in addition to common sense. Friedman demolished the ivory tower that used to be home to the study of economics and replaced it with the dinner table. Coauthored with his wife, Rose Friedman, he spread his ideas worldwide with Free to Choose, the best-selling nonfiction book of 1980 written to accompany a TV series on the Public Broadcasting System. Free to Choose made economic principles come alive as Friedman used his good nature and humor to present free market ideas in a way the general public easily understood.

“Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program,” Friedman notably said. With the federal government the largest it has ever been (some studies estimate more than 14 million federal employees), Friedman recognized the harsh realities of uncontrollable bureaucracy and government spending. Always ready with a witty remark, Friedman concluded, “If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.”

We have a lot to be thankful for, courtesy of Milton Friedman. Including freer markets, an emergence of entrepreneurs, and his profound influence on leaders like Ronald Reagan. Without Friedman’s cultural influence, one must wonder if Ronald Reagan would have even been elected president. So, next time you engage in any economic activity, whether on Wall Street or Wal-Mart, be sure to thank one of my heroes, Milton Friedman.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Zell Miller: A Profile of Courage

The following was an essay I wrote shortly after the 2004 Republican National Convention. I just came across it as I was perusing my old files and thought it would be applicable seeing as how we are slowly drawing closer to convention season.

The great hymn America the Beautiful defines patriots as those who, “more than self the country loved…” In war, patriotism causes soldiers to place themselves in harm’s way to protect the liberty of those they love. In politics, patriotism causes elected officials to love their country more than their political party – to strive for the greater national interest instead of their own personal interest. When he spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2004, Senator Zell Miller, a lifelong Democrat, proved to be one of the most politically courageous elected officials for the ages.

When John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage was published in 1956, he often spoke of the dilemma elected officials face when they hold positions and advocate policy’s contrary to their respective political party’s. Kennedy said, “Of course, both major parties today seek to serve the national interest. But when party and officeholder differ as to how the national interest is to be served, we must place the first responsibility we owe not to our party or even to our constituents but to our individual consciences” (Kennedy 15). Obviously, this is much easier said than done. Zell Miller, however, has often made the difficult choice to split from the Democratic party and his constituents to follow his conscience and advance what he adamantly believed was the greater national interest.

Throughout his entire life, Senator Miller had never cast a vote for a Republican presidential candidate. In fact, he keynoted the 1992 Democratic National Convention for presidential candidate Bill Clinton and was known as Georgia’s incredibly popular Democratic lieutenant governor and governor (Landrith 34). In 2001, Millers successor as governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes, appointed Miller to a U.S. Senate seat following the death of Republican Sen. Paul Coverdell in July 2000. While the Democratic Party's historic control of Georgia politics started to diminish during his tenure as lieutenant governor and governor, Miller remained popular and well respected (Wikipedia 3). He easily won a special election in November 2000 to keep the seat and complete Coverdell’s term.

In 2001, Zell Miller lived up to the promises he made to the people of Georgia during his campaign. He vowed to “vote the interests of Georgia and not blindly follow dogma of either political party. He said it and he meant it.” (Strother 285) He vowed to do what was best for the nation, not for special interest groups or his own political gain. Miller ran as a conservative Democrat and early in the Bush administration agreed with the President on the necessity of tax cuts and other issues, enraging the liberal wing of his own Democratic party. Choosing to support the major initiatives of a conservative Republican president was a very risky move, especially after being such an adamant supporter of Bill Clinton and many other moderate to liberal Democrats.

In 2003, Senator Miller published A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. For many Democrats, this was the end of the line – Zell Miller had completely disowned his party. Jonathan Karl, a CNN Congressional Correspondent, wrote a review of the book for the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page in which he says, “Mr. Miller sets out to take his party to the woodshed with colorful and caustic attacks on fellow Democrats for steering the party too far to the left” (Karl 1). Miller argued that the Democratic Party lost its majority because they stoped standing for the same ideals that they did in the era of John F. Kennedy (Wikipedia 4). The publishing of this book only increased the amount of political pressure from fellow democrats and constituents and consequently the amount of political courage needed to face the opposition.

Even more risky was Senator Miller’s shocking decision to accept the invitation be a keynote speaker at the 2004 Republican National Convention. During the speech, Miller said, “The next four years will determine what kind of world [our children and grandchildren] will grow up in…I ask: Which leader is it today that has the vision, the willpower and, yes, the backbone to best protect my family? There is but one man to whom I am willing to entrust their future, and that man's name is George W. Bush” (Miller 1).

In the Forward to Profiles in Courage, Allan Nevins said, “To be important, courage must be exhibited in behalf of some large cause or rule” (Kennedy xii). In Senator Miller’s case, the cause was among the largest possible – the Presidency of the United States. On one hand, his conscience told him to speak in support of President Bush and on the other hand, he realized that doing so would completely alienate him from an already distant Democratic party. Miller had already decided not to run for re-election to the Senate but fear of public reprisal and his public approval ratings were still at stake. The decision to speak in outright opposition to his own party because of his conscience speaks volumes of Senator Miller’s raw political courage.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with the decisions and positions of Senator Miller, it is clear that he acted to fundamentally advance what he believed was best for the nation considering the circumstances. Many politicians reflexively defend their party, its positions, and its leaders – no matter how obviously wrong they may be. Not Zell Miller. “He asks what is good for America rather than what helps him or his party politically” (Landrith 34). Senator Miller should be renowned as a man of real character who is not lacking in political courage. He is truly a courageous patriot who “more than self” his “country loved.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Lessons Learned from Hillary

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton welcomed her traveling press corps aboard her campaign plane Wednesday with a humorous riff on the standard flight attendant speech familiar to commercial air travelers.

"Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard the maiden flight of Hil Force One," Clinton said over the plane's intercom as it taxied down the runway en route from Las Vegas to Reno, Nev. "My name is Hillary and I am so pleased to have most of you on board," she said.

"FAA regulations prohibit the use of any cell phones, Blackberries or wireless devices that may be used to transmit a negative story about me. "In a few minutes, I am going to switch off the 'Fasten Your Seat Belt' sign. However, I've learned lately that things can get awfully bumpy when you least expect it—so you might want to keep those seat belts fastened.

"And in the event of an unexpected drop in poll numbers, this plane will be diverted to New Hampshire.

"If you look out from the right, you will see an America saddled with tax cuts for the wealthiest and a war without end. If you look out from the left, you will see an America with a strong middle class at home and a strong reputation in the world.

"Once we've reached cruising altitude, we'll be offering in-flight entertainment: my stump speech.

"Once again, thank you for joining us on Hil Force One. We know you have choices when you fly, and so we are grateful that you chose the plane with the most experienced crew. And so we are grateful that you chose the plane with the most experienced candidate."

Conservatives can learn two important political techniques from this:

1. Earned media is alive, well, and more effective than ever! How much did this cost the Clinton campaign (aside from the two minutes it took to write this script by one of "Hil's" interns)? Absolutely nothing. But the result: a link on Drudge and thousands of web hits. Well done, Hil.

2. To build a majority, one must define the other side. When Hil asked reporters to look to the "left" and the "right" she defined the sides of the campaign. Reagan was a master at this. He said the other side believed America's best days laid behind us while he advocated the opposite. While defining our own side is important, we should first focus on defining the radical left.
These lessons may be coming from good-ole Hil but, remember, political technology is philosophically neutral. Time for us to learn these lessons ourselves!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Aristotle’s Quintessential Citizen

In comparison to many other philosophers of classical political thought, Aristotle, in the Politics, takes a somewhat unorthodox approach to understanding and explaining the city. Instead of preliminarily discussing the city as a whole and the characteristics of the polis, his method is to look first at the parts that make up the city: the citizens.

It is clear that the first thing that must be sought is the citizen; for the
city is a certain multitude of citizens. Thus who ought to be called a citizen
and what the citizen is must be investigated (1247b40).
This, in particular, serves as an excellent comparison to Plato’s examination of the city in the Republic where he first defines the many types of regimes and then the corresponding citizen.

For Aristotle, citizenship has little to do with the modern connotation of the word. Citizenship has nothing to do with legal status – being born in a certain nation or applying for citizenship through legal means is completely irrelevant. The modern legal standard for citizenship would not work for Aristotle because of his belief concerning slaves and their place in society. Because slaves are born in the same cities as free men, there must be another standard for citizenship, because slaves are not citizens. This sense of elitism is a prominent tone throughout the Politics and one that readers will see again.

Citizenship is rather seen as dependent upon participation within the regime. There is much more to citizenship than living in or being born in a particular place, or sharing in economic activity, or being ruled under the same laws. It is a kind of activity. “The citizen in an unqualified sense is defined by no other thing so much as by sharing in decision and office” (1275a22). The phrase “sharing in decision and office” has more meaning than initially meets the eye. Aristotle does not necessarily believe that everyone, at all times, should be holding offices and making decisions concerning the city. Rather, he believes citizens are those who can share in office and decision. For example, a citizen may not be on a jury at this very minute, but he could be called; he may not be voting right now, but he could, at a specific time; he may not be serving as a legislator, but he could run. Meaningful participation is what defines citizenship.

Whoever is entitled to participate in an office involving deliberation or
decision is, we can now say, a citizen in this city; and the city is the
multitude of such persons that is adequate with a view to a self-sufficient
life, to speak simply (1275b17).

Direct participation occurs when citizens are sharing in decision and in office. Citizens do not solely vote for representatives but rather they themselves serve as representatives. In addition, citizens should willingly serve on juries and strive to constantly uphold the law. Again, we can draw contrast from “citizens” in modern Western nation-states where there are relatively few opportunities for direct participation and where most passionately struggle to avoid serving on juries.

Aristotle poses the question, “whether the virtue of the good man and the excellent citizen is to be regarded as the same or as not the same” (1276b15). Is being a citizen and a good man enough justification to be classified as a good citizen? Aristotle does not believe so. He postulates that there is a significant difference between what a citizen is and what makes a good citizen, because the citizen will differ in every regime. According to Aristotle, there are six separate and distinct types of regimes, and thus six different kinds of good citizen. “Since there are several regimes, there must necessarily be several kinds of citizen” (1278a15).

While it may seem paradoxical, Aristotle believes that for all citizens, no matter what regime, there is only one common task: the preservation of political life. But the means of achieving this ultimate end varies depending upon regime type.

Although citizens are dissimilar, preservation of the partnership is their task,
and the regime is [this] partnership; hence the virtue of the citizen must
necessarily be with a view to the regime” (1276b27).
Aristotle tells us that if the city is going to endure, it must educate all the citizens in such a way that they support the kind of regime and its legitimizing principles in which they participate. In short, good citizens must have the type of virtue that preserves the partnership and the regime.
Consequently, the best rulers would be the best citizens, because they have the virtue needed to guide the city. Aristotle contends that the good man and the good citizen perfectly coincide when the good citizen is ruling. “If the virtue of the good ruler and the good man is the same, and if one who is ruled is also a citizen, the virtue of citizen and man would not be the same unqualifiedly, but only in the case of a certain sort of citizen” (1277a20). The “case of a certain citizen” refers to Aristotle’s premise of the excellent citizen being subjected to the regime. The best citizens would make the best rulers in their respective regimes because their virtues perfectly align.

Direct participation in political life is necessary for citizens of all regimes who wish to attain Aristotle’s notion of the “good life.” How six very different citizens in very different regimes can actively participate in political life and achieve the same “good life” and “happiness” is another question. There really is no “quintessential citizen” who best achieves the “good life” for Aristotle, but rather six different kinds of good citizens who are each equally excellent.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Book Review: The Aquariums of Pyongyang

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag

“Since your parents are counterrevolutionaries, they deserve to die, and you, their children, along with them. Fortunately for you, the Party is king and its Great Leader magnanimous. He has granted you a reprieve and the chance to redeem yourselves. You should be grateful, but instead you commit further offenses! Commit too many and you will not be forgiven!”

In his book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag,” Kang Chol-hwan draws from firsthand experience life in Yodok, one of North Korea’s many labor camps. His memoir helps make North Korea’s oppressive history personal and specific. In addition to describing the repression and hardships of living in the gulags for ten years, Chol-hwan also provides background information concerning his family (particularly the story of his grandparents), his time in grammar school and his life after being detained in Yodok. This information plays a significant role in the development of Chol-hwan’s story and is well weaved throughout the book.

Kim Il-sung, the leader of North Korea was presented to school children as a “kind of Father Christmas” who bestowed gift packages of cakes and sweets on his birthday, April 15th. The “Great Leader” chose these gifts himself with a care and kindness that gave them a sweetness of their own. In addition to the sweets, school children were also blessed by his “generosity” every third year to receive a school uniform, camp, and a pair of shoes.

While Chol-hwan uses a slightly sarcastic tone concerning the “Great Leaders” generosity, he describes in detail the reality of ideological control in North Korean education. While only six years old, all students were trained to be “the revolution’s little soldiers” where, above all, the morals of communism and the history of the revolution of Kim Il-sung and his son the “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-Il were taught to students. Yang was taught that these leaders were perfect human beings who deserve total, unadulterated respect from all people. Like all school children, he was convinced that these leaders never urinated or defecated and that they were eternally young and omniscient. He recounts, “By marrying our singular Korean genius with the immutable ideas of the Communist revolution, these two master minds, these ‘two darlings of the universe,’ were building for us the Edenic socialist state.” Children were indoctrinated with the communist ideology in every aspect of life.

Chol-hwan admits, that compared to many, he had a relatively happy childhood. His family was better off than most, living in a newly built neighborhood that was exceptionally “quiet, airy, and verdant.” His family’s relative wealth was due to his grandparents’ social status and also to the fact that they had once lived and prospered in Japan. Chol-hwan’s grandmother was the first to exile herself to Japan in the 1930’s. While it was difficult for her to find work she was ultimately employed in a textile factory and had the opportunity to attend night school. It was during her time in night school when she was first introduced to the concept of socialism. She was fascinated by communism and joined the Japanese Communist Party at the young age of twenty. Little did she know that becoming a committed communist would have an impact on her family for the rest of their lives.

It was during this time in Japan that Chol-hwan’s grandmother also met her husband-to-be. Chol-hwan’s grandfather ran away to Japan as a teenager, trying to escape an ill-begotten marriage arranged by his parents. During his time in Japan, his grandfather was successful in finding employment and immediately fell in love. Chol-hwan reminisces, “The man who wanted to make a fortune and the woman who wanted to make a revolution fell in love and married.”
After learning the trade of gold plating in a jeweler’s store he moved to the more lucrative business of rice trading. The most successful of all enterprises, however, was when he began to open “gaming rooms” or casinos in heavily populated areas throughout Japan. His grandfather was amassing a fortune while his grandmother was becoming a committed Communist.
For Kang’s grandfather, the revolutionary ideas of communism held no great interest; “it was only his love for his wife that allowed him to bear them at all.” After much debate and persuasion from his wife, they decided to move to North Korea to follow her conviction and passion for the communist revolution. They moved after the split had occurred between the North and the South when North Korea’s disaster was not even on the horizon. In economic terms, North Korea was still competitive with the South and Pyongyang, the capital of the North, was full of promise for “the Party’s” faithful. What they did not know was that fabricated statistics made North Korea’s barely passable economy look like a magnificent success. Their lives would never be the same.

At first, they lived comparatively well. There were continuous talks of triumph and progress and they were fired with idealism and hopes of building a complete communist nation under the direction of perfect leaders. It was not long however, until they realized that “nothing corresponded to their expectations.” Feelings of malaise began to set in and their apprehensions only deepened. Food shortages, ubiquitous propaganda, and “the incompetence of an ultra-hierarchical bureaucracy incapable of addressing even the most basic problems of every day life” began to convince everyone that they had “been had.” The move to North Korea was a mistake.

In order for readers to understand the continuous doubts and questions raised during the move to North Korea, the background information that Kang provides is vital. These first few chapters provide the detailed information and descriptions of what his family left while they lived in Japan. The stories of his grandparent’s early lives and the disappointment they encountered are critical for the hardships they encountered to be completely realized. Kang and his editors were able to describe in words the series of unceasing doubts and concerns of this new communist revolution – the likes of which have yet to be fully realized.

Kang’s family was beginning to run afoul of paranoid political repression and ultimately become one of the many victims of the “ideological shackles foisted on every North Korean.” One day in July of 1977, Kang’s grandfather did not return home from work. While the police said they knew nothing, his family knew something drastic must have occurred. Several weeks passed before four uniformed soldiers arrived at their apartment in North Korea and relentlessly searched for any incriminating evidence against the Chol-hwan family. According to these men, Kang’s grandfather had committed “a crime of high treason,” the consequence of which was that his family was “immediately” to present itself at the secure zone in Yodok. The stated purpose of sending them away as a family was to “reeducate… through work and study.”

Kang, who was only nine years of age, was honestly not overly upset over the departure. Not realizing that he and his family were being sent to a concentration camp for an unknown amount of time, he was more worried about bringing along his pet fish to the camp. He knew his parents were distraught over the news, but did not think much of it. This honesty and raw emotion provide readers a glimpse of Kang’s prospective as a child. One can only imagine the dismay a young person must have faced leaving everything behind and not realizing the life-threatening dangers ahead.

Nearing the end of the long emotional ride to Yodok in a military truck, Kang saw an open gate with a sign that read, “Border Patrol of the Korean People, Unit 2915.” While at the time, the sign did not impress Kang, he later realized that it was yet “another link in the interminable chain of lies, a way of camouflaging the camp to look like an army barracks, distracting the attention of the outside world.” It was inside these gates, however, where the harsh reality of the forced labor camp resonated.

Surrounded by beautiful mountains, Yodok was surprisingly not necessarily an ugly place. Yang wrote that he was shocked at the beauty of the camps surroundings. Barbed wire could only be seen in a few places but the truth was, it was only needed in a few places. The natural obstacles are enough to keep everyone in the camp. Steep slopes, armed units on every mountaintop, metal wire strung all around the periphery that sets off alarms, electric wire, and traps (much like those set for wild animals) were among the first-line of protective measures in place. Additionally, three roll calls took place every day and if a detainee missed two consecutive roll calls, drastic measures to find the tardy prisoner were taken.

Kang and his family were even more stunned when they saw the hut designated for them to live in during their time of “reeducation” at Yodok. Under a roof of bare wooden planks, with dried earth for walls, and packed dirt for a floor, the family was silenced as they noted to vast differences from their pervious residences. “It was painful to look at these furnishings, infused still with the memory of our luxurious Pyongyang apartment.” Every hut was surrounded by a patch of fenced-off dirt where the prisoners could grow whatever they wanted which seems ironic considering the collectivization of agriculture occurring throughout North Korea on the outside of the camp gates.

What may have been most shocking in Yang’s account of life in Yodok was the lack of food and starvation rampant throughout the camp. In the many years spent at Yodok, the “greatest difficulty… had to do with nourishment.” Chol-hwan recounts always being hungry and the continuous trouble in digesting the food he did get. Corn was always on the menu. Whether it was plain, mixed with herbs found during the hard labor in the fields, mixed with acorn paste, or, if lucky, combined with a few grains of rice. Yang learned to eat whatever he could get his hands on. Insects and earthworms sometimes had to suffice. If lucky, the family would catch one of the many rats in the camp or a frog near the river and devour the pieces of the much needed and sought after meat.

Malnutrition inside the camp was of epic proportions and Yang makes these experiences incredibly personal. He says, “I almost died during my first months in the camp.” The absence of sustenance was, worse than any mistreatment by the guards. Having to work long days on the energy that a few spoonfuls of corn provided was torture and killed many detainees. In describing the malnutrition and food in Yodok, Yang recounts one of his favorite dishes during his internment, a type of corn chowder, and how he tried it several times since Yodok, but has never been able to rediscover the taste it had in the camp. These insights and afterthoughts are what make “Aquariums of Pyongyang” an interesting read.

After waking-up before sunrise and swallowing another little helping of corn, children were required to go to school. After marching into the classroom singing the “Song of Kim Il-Sung” every morning (sometimes twice if it was not sung with enough vigor the first time), students got into groups and reviewed the previous day’s lesson. This review session was followed by lessons in Korean, mathematics, biology, and the teacher’s “clear favorite,” the politics of the Party, where the values of communism and the heroic feats of their leaders were impressed upon students.

The primary concern of teachers was to crush “counterrevolutionary vermin.” Yang had been made to believe – and truly wanted to believe – that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was the greatest and only perfect nation in the universe. Yang’s experience in school at Yodok, however, was confusing, “I looked up to Kim Il-sung as a god. Yet here were armed teachers beating and insulting their student charges.” Yang was continually confused about the numerous disconnects and paradoxical beliefs of communism but never said a word in dissent for fear of punishment.

Classes ended at noon. Students were given an hour to rest and eat the cornmeal brought from the hut and then directly started manual labor. At Yodok, there was no such thing as individual responsibility, “ones work only counted as part of the collective output.” Labor ranged from hauling tree trunks down mountains to carrying the deceased up the mountain to be prepared for their mass burials or entailed mining coal from tunnels throughout the camps hills. If the work quotas were not being met, detainees were physically abused and beaten or given extra work shifts and sometimes both! Inhumane conditions, unrealistic standards, and brutal punishments were the norms when laboring within the confines of Yodok.

Yang provides readers an unprecedented view of life in the North Korean gulags. He is able to provide details about school, work, and daily that only survivors can testify to. In addition to those details, Yang is also able to provide details concerning the impacts that imprisonment had on his family and on him personally. His family would never be the same – they grew further apart daily while in Yodok. They barely spoke to each other during meals and never spoke at night because of shear exhaustion. The “sibling bond” he had once had with his sister was “stolen” and never given back. “Yodok is not place for human beings,” Yang said. Once an outgoing extrovert, Yang’s personality was slowly transformed to having introverted tendencies as he became overtly shy. He continually goes beyond the normal, predictable memoir by discussing both the immediate and gradual effects his time at Yodok had on him psychologically.
February 16, 1987 is a day that Kang Chol-hwan will never forget. This was the day when the Chol-hwan family was notified that they were going to be released from the gates of Yodok. As the family counted down the days until they were released from the camp, they were filled with excitement but also disappointment. They realized that while they were being released, it would be impossible to ever rediscover a satisfactory life like that had once had.

Yang finishes “Aquariums of Pyonyang” with several chapters about North Korea as he found it after ten years of isolation and also describing his escape from North Korea. Yang expected to find the “workers paradise” of North Korea when he was released. North Korea, however, was far from paradise. Economic crisis had struck the country and people resorted to eating tree bark to survive the famine. All citizens were under constant surveillance and the repression of the communist leaders was almost as bad as inside the camp. To get away from this, Yang had to attempt escape without his family to China. From China, he gained a miraculous entry into his final destination of South Korea.

These ending chapters truly illustrated the adventure and risks Yang took as he made his own great escape. He was amazed at what the outside world had to offer. Whether it was night clubs, restaurants where people threw away uneaten food, or the freedom of movement citizens enjoyed, Yang was overfilled with emotions. Through many trials and tribulations, he made it to South Korea. His goal was to go to South Korea to spread the truth of North Korea to people around the world. He wanted people to know the realities of being detained in a North Korean concentration camp and wanted to explain the real economic state of the country. He has more than accomplished this goal by writing “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”

The book’s organization was well structured for the most part. The first chapters started off with more of a strict chronological structure. This allowed for the family’s history and the events leading up to the detention to be thoroughly explained and consequently easy to follow. The chapters describing Yang’s time in the concentration camp was a mixture between a chronological and topical structure. The chapters did follow a general timetable of when he was detained at the camp but the added stories and extra details were often times intertwined and did not exactly follow the perfect chronological series of events. This mix between organizational structures was needed, though, for Yang to be extensive in his descriptions.

While much of Yang’s story took place during the Korean War. Chol-hwan barely addresses the impact that the war had on his family or at his time at Yodok. It is only mentioned a few times throughout the book and is usually associated with the false propaganda being spread by the North. While this may not be a focal point, Chol-hwan could have included more about what people were saying about the war efforts and how the war had been viewed after his time spent in Yodok.

Also, more could have been written about the root causes of the many effects Kang personally experienced. For example, Yang often made references to the Great and Dear Leaders but failed to mention why the glorification of these leaders was so important for communism to be successful. He could have also gone into more detail about how these leaders came to power and the impression they directly and indirectly had on his life. While that was not the focus of this book, that background information could have been helpful to readers who may not know much about the history of North Korea and its leadership.

Kang co-authored the book with Pierre Rigoulot who was a contributor to “The Black Book of Communism.” While “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” will not be remembered for its literary qualities, it will for the immediacy and drama of Kang Chol-Hwan’s personal testimony. The writing, as translated by Rigoulot, is unembellished and straight to the point. This style suits itself well as Kang masterfully presents his personal account of a brutalized childhood and the perils of a communist regime. “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” adds volumes to the tales of horror that have come out of North Korea in recent years and Kang has been successful in his ultimate goal of sharing his experiences in hopes of more world-wide recognition of the atrocities occurring today in North Korea.

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Sunday, July 08, 2007

Real Nature of Politics

This weekend I attended LI’s “boot camp” of politics, the Youth Leadership School (YLS). It is an intense, 26 hours of training that is most often described as “drinking from a fire hose” – a long two days, but worth every minute.

One of the first lectures at the YLS is called the “Real Nature of Politics.” I thought I would share with y’all some of the highlights of this lecture so you may better understand why it is so important to learn how to win!
  • Most Americans have no issues with the conservative philosophy – who doesn’t want lower taxes, smaller government, and free enterprise? Not to mention the protection of life and other traditional values!
  • When it comes down to ideas, ceteris paribus (other things constant), conservatives trounce the liberal left.
  • We have great ideas, but we are not always successful.

Sir Galahad Theory of Politics, “I will win because my heart is pure.”

  • Unfortunately, not true.
  • Being right, in the sense of being philosophically correct, is not sufficient to win.

Political success over time is determined by the number of effective activists on the respective sides

  • Political technology determines the number of effective activists on a given side
  • Therefore, political technology determines political success

It’s been an amazing summer so far. The political technology that I have learned by attending these trainings is unparalleled. While I would love to share some of the revolutionary, innovative techniques I have learned, I cannot. I refuse. Political technology is neutral (the left could be effective with this technology also) and I do not want to give away our secrets!

There are exciting things happening within the conservative movement, folks! There is no better time than the present to get involved and receive training to become effective. To borrow a line from the Young America’s Foundation,

the conservative movement starts here!

the Leadership Institute

As most of you know, I am currently interning with the Leadership Institute (LI) in Washington, DC. It is a phenomenal organization and has been a wonderful opportunity thus far.

For all who may not be familiar with LI, I encourage you to visit our website at and check out our mission statement:

The Leadership Institute's mission is to identify, recruit, train, and place conservatives in politics, government, and the media.

There are great things happening within this organization so I encourage you, if you are a conservative who wants to win, to check us out!