Archive for December, 2009

Happy Boxing Day!

December 26, 2009

I like to think that the open ended phrase “Happy Holidays” has a little room in it for Boxing Day. Woefully under-appreciated outside of the Commonwealth, the 26th will always be a perfect day for playing with toys, eating cookies, and languishing in post-xmas warmth. I’ll save you the (Sarah Vowell-esque?) exploration of the holiday’s history and remark instead that the great thing about Boxing Day is that you get all the warm/fuzzy without any of the religious connotations! Delightful.

On an unrelated note, isn’t it odd how some words aren’t ever used outside of a set phrase? Some examples:

vested…(interests)
corroborating…(story/testimony)
diametrically…(opposite/opposed)
ballooning…(debt/deficit)

Really, try to think of anything else that is “vested” other than “interests”…etc.
Happy Boxing Day!

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Why did the DPJ win? What can we expect from them?

December 9, 2009

In the most recent cycle of Japanese national elections, The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which has only been in existence since 1996, utterly dominated (as in totally trounced) the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which had been in power more or less continuously since the 1950’s. How could this happen? There are certainly larger questions in life, but more mystifying ones? I wouldn’t go so far as to make that suggestion.

Unfortunately I find myself needing to come up with a satisfactory essay-length answer to these two related questions as soon as possible. Before I get mired in the nitty gritty of the writing process, what with its necessity for “consulting reputable sources,” and, “thinking things through,” I feel like using this forum to brainstorm for a while.

First question’s first. There are several possible reasons for DPJ victory: Electoral reform — which was passed in 1993, during the brief moment when a coalition of LDP defectors gained power — helped give more voice to urban voters by re-portioning the number of seats per district to reflect Japan’s demography more accurately. This may have put the LDP at a disadvantage since it finds a big chunk of its constituency in rural districts. The electoral reforms also increased the number of single member (first past the post) voting districts vs. multi-member (proportional representation) districts, which may have helped take the steam out of the LDP political machine, accustomed as it was to flooding each district with candidates so as to dilute the spread of the proportional votes and keep as many as possible within the party.

Conversely, it *could* be that voters, despite the fact that they appear to be even more disengaged with politics than US voters, just got fed up. After all, the incumbents had been making next to no headway on trade liberalization, welfare reform, or the borderline absurd level of government subsidy to failing firms. It is no exaggeration to suggest that reading about the waste endemic to this system is exactly like reading some of the more ridiculous passages from Catch-22. It also bears mentioning that the LDP had been riled with scandal since the 80’s and (oh yeah!) placed in a fairly vulnerable position when it comes to apportioning blame for more than a decade of economic stagnation! In this light, it may be even more difficult to understand how they lasted as long as they did.

There is also a broader debate that I am expected to talk about: the question of how people make decisions. In this class we read a lot of commentary that traced political happenings inevitably back to particular actors playing out their own best strategies. Politicians act to maximize their interests, in this school of thought, and voters naturally do the same. But there’s also folks that privilege institutional shift or adaptation, whereby the rules change over time reflecting a kind of cumulative wave of choices — people are still rational, but they make choices in terms of what they perceive social rules to be. To understand their choices you have to look at the pattern of exchanges going on around them. (My take on this and other fun social science debates is that the truth lies in an impenetrable fog between the two lemmas, an insight which is not really very insightful albeit maybe pithy enough to qualify as good fodder for an opening paragraph.)

In any case, it was certainly rational for voters to seek change and for DPJ leaders to organize an effective campaign to promote it — but why now? and how did they do it? and in what areas did the LDP lapse sufficiently to allow them to do it? These are all legitimate questions to elaborate on in the essay, and all require aforementioned nitty gritty work.

Moving on to the second question, which may be the harder of the two since it’s concerned with predicting the future, what can we expect? Well, the biggest DPJ plank is to revamp social welfare programs and make them more broad and equitable (which will hopefully have the ancillary effect of encouraging cash strapped consumers to spend more of their money and to increase the dwindling labor force by having more babies). They’ve also been going through the budget with one of those jeweler’s eyepiece thingies to cut wasteful spending. Plus they’ve engaged in “comprehensive” administrative reform so that, for example, bureaucrats can no longer sit in the Diet or hold press conferences. (In the first weeks of the Hatoyama administration, this apparently led to the Foreign Minister not being allowed to call press conferences, which was very silly from a diplomatic perspective.) Anyway, the DPJ also placed a big emphasis on decentralization, the giving of more decision making power to local governments. Apparently they want to gain people’s trust, to bring folks into the fold of actually participating in politics. While there’s plenty of cause for cynicism, it’s also the case that a more active local government would help ameliorate the pork barrel problem, which is way worse in Japan than it is in the US.

The DPJ are no doubt up against “vested interests,” like powerful bureaucrats and bloated domestic industries that stand to loose their access government credit. But they also appear to be working in tandem with vested interests, since they declared Japanese farming, fishing and forestry to be globally competitive and thus worthy of government help. from their reform programs. Also the reform of the postal system (see a couple posts below) has mysteriously disappeared from the agenda. So are they in danger of being co-opted by said interests? There’s also the fiscal challenge in that they can’t take the risk of raising taxes and hence they will have to sell a huge number of government bonds to pay for all this reform. Can you just keep going in to debt forever?

So that’s a quick and dirty outline of some of the issues at hand, and I think my brain is sufficiently stormed for now.