Design Life

27 Design and Korea 8: Grandma’s Capitalist Luncheon

In May of 2013 I drove a Spanish German car on a day trip to the Bourgogne with an English Briton and a Russian Estonian. After sightseeing in the Jura mountains we concluded that they are indeed lower and less impressive than the Alps. We had worked up an appetite and decided now was the perfect time for some fine Burgundian French cuisine. I booted up the Michelin Guide, we picked a likely establishment and arrived at 14:15. It was closed. Everything was closed. Food was denied us, for it was not lunchtime. Nothing could be done. No food for us until 19:00 when dinners would be served.

In May of 2016 I walked out of a subway station in a Seoul suburb. Restaurants, shops, cafes, stores, offices, parlors, and pop-ups clustered and clambered up four and five stories around the station. Whether 14:15 or 22:15, Sunday or Monday, a crowd of signs and shopfronts jostled to feed me, clothe me, trim my hair, and teach me English.

I don’t need the latter, but the profusion stands and begs explanation. Why can I get so many different things to eat at 14:15? Why are there so many businesses in Korea?

Whether in the French or the Polish countryside, the Dutch or the Slovenian town, there are two types of people. There are the ordinary people who work. Clock in come morning, clock off after noon. Wait for the summer holiday, spend two weeks by the Med. Wait for the winter holiday, ski for a week in the Alps. The calendar of the ordinary people is simple and seasonal. Then there are the extraordinary people who own. They don’t work, they create work. They do business. They perform magic tricks with money and machines, creating jobs (and toil) for the ordinary people. These two types of people are the active citizens.

There are also the lesser people, the inactive citizens. The children, the housewives, the unemployed, the retired. Those who do not work and who do not create work. I can skip over those, surely, for are they not surplus to the capital clockwork conception of the cosmos our Europe runs on?*

But the key distinction remains. There are ordinary people. Workers. There are extraordinary people. Businessmen. Entrepreneurs.

And the extraordinary people are to be treated differently. Both celebrated and vilified, both the angels of creation and the demons of exploitation. They are taxed differently. Their pensions are assessed differently. Their capital gains are a different kind of income. They own legal persons who are separate from them: companies.

Ordinary people talk of saving, extraordinary people talk of investing.

In 2008 when I opened my first company, I joined the ranks of the extraordinary people. Suddenly bills from government agencies I had never heard of before arrived. I had to send out statements, make fire hazard plans, and track expenses to deduct from my taxes. That supermarket trip? Sure, I need paper towels for my home office. Those could be deducted along with the mileage of the trip.

It was weird. It was unnerving. I was the same person, I hardly knew what I was doing, but here was the law, assuming that I was this other class of being. A class of being with a very rusty money tap that didn’t work too well.

Fast forward again to that Seoul suburb and beyond.

There were old people running convenience stores. There were kids plugging away at registers. The megacorporation employee dreamt of opening a restaurant. The retired clerk ran a coffee shop. The wealthy construction scion went to study carpentry at forty.

Something felt off. Odd. Weird. It tugged at the edge of my consciousness. Like a piece of gum stuck to my shoe.

That distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary people, between the worker and the businessman, was missing. What I had lived with as a fact of life, seemed now like a European distinction that broke down in Korea.

The more closely I looked, the more this seemed to be the case.

Until a decade ago most Korean ‘pensions’ were actually a lump sum paid out after many years of service to an employer, and the pensioner who expected to keep living almost invariably invested in some kind of small business.**

To most Europeans, me among them, this kind of social safety ‘net’ (or hole) seems horrifying, but it does restate the assumption: everybody is an entrepreneur, a business person. There is no set moment when somebody should cease participating in the economy.

The implications percolate deeper. When I use a Korean bank card in Korea, part of the cash I spend is deducted from my taxable income. Every Korean consumer functions as a micro-business, with their expenses deducted to encourage them to keep the wheels of the economy turning.

It made my mind spin.

It’s so common to raise up the capitalist, the business man, the entrepreneur as some kind of Atlas or Colossus bestriding the world and imposing his will, that we inadvertently believe this myth that only an extraordinary person with an extraordinary will and extraordinary vision and extraordinary ideas can succeed.

We feel inadequate and terrified and anxious. Could we ever be entrepreneurs? With our fears and worries? With our feeble hearts and limited capacities?

There’s a whole industry of self-help literature for entrepreneurs, helping them to be fitter, slimmer, sexier, sportier, more athletic, better at shrugging.

So, if entrepreneurs are not special, what does that mean? It means they are ordinary, that’s what. Just like everyone else. What entrepreneurs do is organize tasks and resources to achieve goals. And sometimes they get people to work together, which is like herding cats.

You know, like housewives do all the time. Balancing the household budget. Handling logistics and keeping the house stocked. Cleaning and maintaining the real estate. Managing communications and PR with neighbors and friends and relatives and utility companies. Planning chores and holidays. Investing in human resources and shipping child units off to schools.

You know, like your hypothetical grandma who survived a couple of wars, managed a household, and raised a batch of kids.

And then my visit to the Korean tax office made sense.

We muddled through our papers, and I nodded along (atrocious is too kind a description of my Korean), and a mistake was greeted with a grin, “Oh, yes, that is complicated. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it. Here, let me fix that for you.”

At the time I was bewildered. A polite tax authority?

Now, I understood. A tax authority that assumes entrepreneurs are ordinary people who make mistakes and need time to figure things out. Certainly safer than facing the wrath of an upset grandma capitalist who doesn’t have time for this kind of nonsense because she actually has a business to run and has been doing so for fifty years.

*What is work? Who works? This is a whole massive topic I’m just sweeping under the rug.

**99% of retirees still withdraw the lump sum, so … there is that scary fact still holding true.

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