Since the global spread of the H1N1 virus, the government has made quite a fuss, forcing schools to check students' temperatures at the gate and dispensing hand sterilizers, which itself can hardly be blamed. The truth is, no student has died of the new flu, but hundreds of middle and high school students kill themselves out of undue burdens to excel above their friends and gain acceptance to prestigious universities.
Wow! An unusually lucid statement in an editorial from The Korea Times on Friday, titled Gross National Happiness. It hits the nail on the head, pretty much. But it also says the following, which is a cop-out:
The national obsession ― mostly led by the government ― to become an advanced country as soon as possible through enhanced competitiveness hardly allows its people any breathing room. Just look at parents who are driven to send their toddlers to after-kindergarten classes, in hopes that they can gain some sort of real-world advantage. No wonder Korean students' sense of happiness is especially lower, showing a wide gap even with the last-placed runners-up.
How is the government to blame, exactly? The piece is a little unclear on that, but mostly stems from President Lee Myung-bak's promise to get Korea into the G-7. Once again, I have to point out that this was part of the platform he ran on in the elections a mere eighteen months ago (and for which, presumably, he was elected); after gaining the majority in the popular vote--a rarity in this country of about five gajillion political parties--he is trying to act on his promises. How dare he. Presumably an elected government reflects the wishes of its voters, at least when it comes to platform goals.
The same thought occurs to me in the healthcare reform flap back home. Obama ran on HCR, and is trying to live up to his promise to the American people. But some small minority is screaming, "Give me back my country!" I understand the reaction when it comes from people in the insurance bizz, say, or pharmaceuticals (the legal kind, I mean), but when some old man warns his congressman, "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" you have to wonder what's going on. (Note for the Teeming Dozens who are not American: Medicare is a US government program.)
Anyway, the editorial continues:
The Lee Myung-bak administration may be able to jack up the birthrate ― even considerably ― if it drastically expands spending on mothers and children to some of the levels of more successful countries, such as France. Likewise, it could pull down the suicide rate by paying far greater attention to these social ills and staging long-term campaigns.
France, huh? Wow, America's world esteem has dropped so much that even Korea sees a better example in France! Remember Freedom Fries? It's schadenfreude time for beret-wearers.
Of course, the French do have quite generous benefits for expecting and new mothers, including maternity leave with job guarantees, reimbursement of expenses and an allowance during leave time. This page says France spends 15% of its total budget for family and child services--and it is bucking Europe's declinging birthrate trend by a healthy margin. The French rate is 1.8, the European average is 1.3, and Korea's birthrate lags at 1.2. By comparison, the US rate is about 2.1, just enough for replacement.