The Spirit Level

Image courtesy of Amazon
Image courtesy of Amazon

The latest book I finished reading is The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. This book is a comprehensive study about inequality and the impacts to societies as a whole. I had the idea of reading this book because I read The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth. When the author discuss about Gini-measured equality, he mentioned this book. Talking about Gini, Gini coefficient, seems to bring back all the good memories from learning economics few years ago. So, I decided to read The Spirit Level soon after I finish the Scandinavian utopia.

The Spirit Level was written based on extensive studies done in many developed countries. After considering some limitations on data, Wilkinson and Pickett chose 23 countries and 50 American states to be used for comparisons. This book really tries to give readers a total comprehension about what inequality can do to a whole society, not specifically only to the poor. Honestly I was surprised by what inequality can do to decrease the quality of life. The authors show readers that inequality can do harm by affecting the community life and social relations, mental health and drug use, physical health and life expectancy, obesity, educational performance, teenage births, violence, imprisonment and punishment, and social mobility. I am not going to put every result of the research here but I summarise my few favourite points that I remember.

There was an interesting story behind equality. Alexis de Tocqueville travelled throughout the United States in 1831, met many people from various backgrounds and saw the society as ‘one single mass’ (at least for whites). From his experience, he believed that equality had helped to developed and maintain trust among Americans. The slavery happened because African-Americans were viewed as ‘other’ so the empathy didn’t occur. He concluded that empathy was only felt for those we view as equals, ‘the same feeling for one another didn’t not exist between the different classes.’

Not only equality affects empathy, it also affects trust. It makes sense. With greater inequality, people care less about another and competition increases because all they care is to fending themselves to get what they want in order to be seen materially valuable in the eyes of others. It is not a good news because a number of convincing studies in the USA have linked trust to health. People with low-level of trust live shorter and vice versa.

Inequality affects everyone in the society, even the younger generation. Social inequality in early childhood development entrenched long before the start of formal education. Researches show that more unequal countries and states have worse educational attainment. Children living in low-income families are also more likely to experience and witness more family conflict, disruption, and violence. As an adult, they are prone to involved in crimes and teenage births.

What I like the most is the idea of Wilkinson and Pickett that the quality of social relations in a society is built on material foundations. In a materialistic society, people tend to value money more and social relations less. But unfortunately, the evidence shows that happiness has not increased in spite of double fold on real income.

If my writing about The Spirit Level drag your curiosity out about the severe impact of inequality to the society, I recommend you to read the whole book. It is a worth-to-read book that can expand your horizon and probably give you new idea to contribute in creating more equal society.


The Two Koreas

Yes, as you can guess, in this post I am talking about the two Koreas, the North and South Korea. I am actually talking about Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick and The New Korea: An Inside Look at South Korea’s Economic Rise by Myung Oak Kim and Sam Jaffe.

Nothing To Envy  Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Image courtesy of Amazon

I read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea few months before I flew to South Korea for a summer school. My English teacher lent me his book and surprisingly it was a very good story about the secretive North Korea! I shouldn’t be that surprised because this book was awarded the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction and was also a finalist for the National Book Award in 2010. Few pages after the author’s note, I drifted by the romance story of young Mi-ran and her boyfriend Jun-sang while these love birds were living on the outskirts of Chongjin, one of the industrial cities not far from the border with Russia. The first chapter of this book really fed my appetite to keep on reading until the very last page. Furthermore, if you stroll along the pages, perhaps you would be astonished by the ability of government to instil the idea of juche (self-reliance) with reserved red letters propaganda signs scattered ubiquitously that was translated into, “Long live Kim Il-Sung. Kim Jong-Il, sun of the 21st century. Let’s live our own way. We will do as the party tells us. We have nothing to envy in the world.” I like this book as it gives us deep understanding about the lives of North Koreans, including the violence happened on the labour camps. It seemed that Demick didn’t let the sorrow ended, the last few pages written were about the sweet-turned-sour reunion of Mi-ran and her lover years after she defected from North Korea.

Image courtesy of Amazon
Image courtesy of Amazon

Stark contrast with the lives of millions North Koreans, the fellow South Koreans live in a free yet modern world. They live really like normal people in the other parts of the world amid the continuous nuclear threats from their neighbour. I didn’t encounter horrible stories about chronic famine or awful labour camps here in The New Korea: An Inside Look at South Korea’s Economic Rise. In the first part of the book, Kim and Jaffe introduced readers to the long journey of (united then separated) Korea(s). The next pages full of miraculous economic growth of South Korea followed by the stories of worldwide well-known Korean chaebol. The most interesting part of the book is the stories of Korean society in which I eventually got much idea of Korean lifestyle. This book is simply light and handy guide to understand pretty much everything about South Korea. But if you feel the need to know more about Korea is still going strong, there are several books that can satisfy your curiosity. As examples, you can refer to Korea: The Impossible Country or The Korean Mind: Understanding Contemporary Korean Culture to get understanding about Korean general affair. If your interest is specific to business, I think you would enjoy Samsung Electronics and the Struggle for Leadership of the Electronics Industry or more recent version of it in The Samsung Way: Transformational Management Strategies from the World Leader in Innovation and Design (different authors with the previously mentioned title).

So, have you decided on which books to read first? 🙂

The Culture Map

Have you ever been in an awkward situation caused by a culture clash when you were abroad? I got this thing back when I was in Korea for a summer school. It was when I about to have lunch with my assigned Korean buddy, she asked me, “Sera, how many cars do you have at home?” I paused for a moment, tried to comprehend her question. Oh, she is eager to know how rich I am. I replied, “I have three cars, one for each of us!” This time, she was startled. “Oh gosh, you are so rich! I don’t even have one.” Oh buddy, please, you believe what I just said?

For Indonesians (or maybe just for me), that kind of question might be considered impolite. It is equal to stop someone who is walking on the pavement and ask, “Hey dude, how much money do you earn in a month?” That surprising question given by a foreigner friend on a very first meeting triggered my curiosity about cultural difference. At first, I wonder why Koreans seem so materialistic (pardon me if it is just happened to my friend) and yes I got an insight about materialism from a survey done by Ipsos. From that survey we can see that Koreans value more of their success by the possessions they have than the global average and they feel more pressure to be successful. Ya ya ya, no wonder if my Korean friend asked me so.

Image courtesy of Erin Meyer

One and a half-year past from that moment, I was hooked to read this book shortly after reading an article about cultural difference. I had a feeling that this book would be awesome and my gut was exactly right! Open few pages of The Culture Map, you will be welcomed by the wisdom of Mrs. Chen. Few more pages, you will understand about the high-context and low-context as an introduction to cross-cultural communications. If you are excited with what you read, go on, because there are a lot more hilarious, even disastrous real-life examples of cross-cultural communications. I personally like chapter four and six because they both talk about trust. On chapter six you will encounter the explanation of peach and coconut relationship based; trust is from the head or the heart; and brief history of egalitarian Scandinavians (that eventually leads me to another great reading). Overall, I find this book very interesting that I finished reading it pretty quick. You don’t necessarily have to be a professional or an executive to read this one because the practicality of this book is applicable to both business and personal situations.