The Perfect Storm

R. B. Laughlin
Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology
373 Guseong-dong, Yuseong-gu, Daejeon 305-711, Republic of Korea

Chosun Ilbo, September 30, 2005

Rain in San Francisco, my long-term home, comes only in winter in the form of great Pacific storms. These are somewhat like typhoons in Korea, except colder. A slight wind picks up, turns about to the south and strengthens. The sky to the west darkens, the trees begin to sway and the wind chimes start clanging. Then the rain begins, first hesitatingly and then more and more until its pounding on the roof drowns out other sound. The downpour continues for many hours, during which it is wise to stay home. I enjoy the chaos and violence of these storms, and miss them living here in Asia.

Right now a great Pacific storm is bearing down on Japan, the US and Korea: the controversy of university incorporation. Here in Korea it has been gathering for over a year, and is at the moment of great blowing and warning just before the rain begins. On September 21, 2005, Minister of Education Kim, Jin-pyo announced to the University Management Diversity and Competence Committee that "... We will incorporate the competent universities. If Seoul National University raises the tuition level to that of private universities, its financial condition will be improved." There was immense public outcry---although not by everyone.

I have observed storms of this nature sweeping across the US, often repeatedly, and so am less concerned about it than most Koreans I know, who view it as an embarrassing domestic political problem. It isn't that. It's a natural and necessary consequence of a country's transition to the information age. In advanced knowledge economies, we make our living by preventing our competition from acquiring knowledge. This means that knowledge in such economies must be property, and therefore that knowledge cannot be given away free. This idea is exactly opposite from the usual liberal theory of education, which is why the transition to the new model is so stormy.

Most savvy parents in Korea already understand this principle, although they rarely talk about it openly. The struggle of a parent to get his or her child into the "best schools" is, in large measure, a strategy to get the child proprietary knowledge that other children don't get. That is why the struggle is so fierce. But the clear implication is that the benefit of education to the state is largely fictional, and that the true beneficiaries of successful education are parents.

What is wrong with just continuing on with the public university model as we have known it? Simply that, in this new environment, the weakness of its buyer-seller relationship causes its educational product to devalue over time. Our knowledge economy is, unfortunately, characterized by a vast oversupply of junk information, knowledge that has no economic value because it is not dear. Protected from the wrath of buyers, any educational institution tends to increase the fraction of junk knowledge in its portfolio over time because good knowledge is difficult and expensive to acquire. Government officials do their best to oppose this tendency, but they are always fighting a losing battle because civil service rules prevent them from threatening incomes, the only known way to motivate human beings to do difficult and unpleasant things.

Some people in Korea at the moment favor incorporating the "bad" universities while keeping the "good" universities public. My experience in the US tells me this cannot be in a democratic country. The reason is that a "good" university is, by definition, elite. That means the children of most voters can't attend. That means most voters don't like "good" universities. Education means a lot to them, and they will summarily vote out of office anyone who uses their taxes to pay to educate someone else's child. I think a lot about this problem because I am running an elite university at the moment. Yes, I am worried.

In the dry country on the other side of the ocean we value these storms, even though they are very frightening, because they bring the water we need to live. After they pass a startling transformation takes place: the air becomes cold and sweet in way that is difficult to describe, and the sky becomes a deep, cloudless blue. The few drops of water still clinging to the leaves glisten in the sun, the creeks run full once again, and the world sings.

[Copyright 2005 R. B. Laughlin. The author grants permission to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.]