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South Korea Goes Crazy Over Beef

Dani Rodrik and Tyler Cowen are having an interesting back-and-forth over Cowen's New York Times column this past weekend, in which he argued that anxiety about globalization is mostly an irrational frenzy of xenophobia. No doubt Rodrik's right that protectionism is an entirely rational response from workers whose jobs are at risk of being shipped abroad, but in general I'm more persuaded by Cowen that most of the anti-globalization sentiment out there is driven by visceral feelings toward foreigners. (Cowen offers the timely example of international soccer tournaments--I presume Michael Ballack would agree.)

For more evidence, one need look no further than events this week in South Korea, where upwards of 80,000 people turned out in the streets of Seoul to protest President Lee Myung-bak's decision to resume imports of American beef. The backlash against the move brought the government to its knees, threatens seriously to damage Korean–American relations, and prompted the entire cabinet to offer to resign. Having visited South Korea briefly last summer, I'm not surprised: Beef is, for whatever reason, a major symbol of national pride--upon introducing myself as an American, on several occasions I was promptly asked my opinion of Korean beef. (It's really good, but still.) Beyond that, the entire country is gripped by a fervent, almost eerie strain of economic nationalism. You can walk around Seoul for hours without seeing a non-Korean car. And this from a country that has benefited beyond belief from globalization! With all due respect to Rodrik, it's pretty difficult to explain this sort of reaction as a rational response to economic forces.

--Josh Patashnik