Thursday, December 20, 2007

Observations from Seoul

I just got back from a "short" trip to attend an economics confernce in Seoul. As the flights to and from Seoul took nearly the same amount of time as the stay, it probably wasn't the most rational itinerary in the world, but it was a good conference and a nice, albeit brief, visit.

One of the striking things about Seoul and its environs is the tremendous amount of transportation infrastructure--a huge international airport, a vast port system, numerous bridges and causeways, and an extensive public transportation network. The infrastructure is all the more amazing when you consider that a half century ago South Korea was a poor, undeveloped country just emerging from a devastating war. While the country has developed rapidly since then, its per capita GDP is still only five-ninths that of the U.S.

Some of the investment in infrastructure is a simple matter of need. The Republic of Korea has a population of just under 50 million and roughly half of that population is concentrated in and around Seoul. Even with the infrastructure, traffic grinds to a standstill in many parts of the city during the rush hours.

A considerable amount of investment was also spurred by the 1988 Summer Olympics, which were held in Seoul. While we usually think of the Olympics as prompting investments in sporting venues, they also lead to transportation improvements (and in the case of South Korea, the games also contributed to the transition to democracy).

Whatever the reason, Seoul's example shows that these types of investments owe at least as much to societal will and character as they do to simple cost-benefit calculations. When societies set goals and pull together, they can accomplish great things.