Monday, August 31, 2009

A New Government in Japan

There was a wholesale change in government yesterday in Japan, as the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) went from having 300 seats to 119 in the 480-seat parliament, while the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) went from 115 to 308. This sounds less impressive when you consider that the two parties are relatively similar ideologically (the DPJ was formed by a breakaway LDP group), but more impressive when you consider that this is only the second time since WWII the LDP hasn't been in power (the first, in 1993, lasted for less than two years), the first time that the LDP was not the party with the most seats, and the first time another party has had a majority by itself, not needing to form a coalition. When viewed in the proper context, it appears to be quite a significant change. Whether it will lead to real change is hard to say, since there's just no precedent for this situation in Japan.

One thing that's important to understand about–I was going to say, Japanese politics, but maybe I should say LDP politics, since for more than fifty years they've been synonymous–is that the LDP operated by consensus, so it was hard to get anything done. Not that every last member had to approve of every bill, but all of the main power brokers had to approve; there was no pushing something through against the wishes of, say, someone who controlled sixty votes just because it could be done. They valued relationships above all else, and it was important not to show anyone else up. Also, the prime minister was often not the person who had the most power in the party, and so was often little more than a figurehead. A recent exception to this was 2001-2006 PM Junichiro Koizumi, who almost singlehandedly led the LDP to its landslide win four years ago, and so had substantial power in the LDP. After he retired, power reverted to its normal distribution among many LDP sub-groups. As for the DPJ, I suspect than even political experts here won't know exactly how power will operate in the party until they've had a chance to wield it.

The DPJ's platform was basically as follows:

1. We are not the LDP.
2. We will spend money on things you want.

My description is facetious, but not too inaccurate. The history of democracies shows that pandering works, and the DPJ went whole-hog, promising wholesale spending increases while vowing not to raise taxes or increase the debt. This approach, famously and accurately described as 'voodoo economics' by George H. W. Bush in 1980, seems to work on the same principle as the furniture store ads that promise 'no payments until January', which doubtless appeals to those to whom January is so far in the future that it will surely never arrive. This is electorally effective, at least until the deficit balloons and a stunned populace wonders how such a sound and logical plan could have failed.

The linchpin of the DPJ's platform is their promise to give parents an extra ¥26,000 per month for each child 15 or younger. This actually strikes me as a reasonable plan if increasing the population is truly a national priority; more than a few students have told me that they hesitate to have three (or even two) children due to the high costs of raising them, especially the cost of education. One problem with this plan is that for maximum effectiveness it should only apply to future children, as paying for present children will likely not cause parents to rush out a few more. Unfortunately, there are more votes to be had from current parents than from future parents. Also, if I were Japanese, I would not be rushing to procreate based on this policy, as I'd be less than confident that a future government would rescind it, and then I'd be stuck with kids I couldn't afford. They need to make it an annuity, or some other promise binding on future governments. Of course, they may not even do it at all, but this was the promise that got the most publicity.

Even though the DPJ is not that different from the LDP, this was still a big step for the Japanese population, many of whom couldn't imagine any government other than the LDP, as it had been in power for so long. (I got quite a kick out of the LDP's efforts to exploit this feeling, asserting that the DPJ wasn't 'experienced' enough to take power; by that logic, the LDP could never be removed, as no one else had any governing experience.) Better the devil you know... Still, the Japanese have taken their first tentative step away from one-party rule. It should be interesting to see what happens now.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Humanity's Journey

"Very good, Captain. There is hope for you. Perhaps in several thousand years, your people and mine shall meet to reach an agreement. You are still half savage, but there is hope. We will contact you when we are ready."

Star Trek, "Arena"

This sort of line was spoken in more than one Star Trek episode. The Enterprise encounters some powerful and super-evolved race who initially judge humans to be relative savages, but Kirk does something that shows that humans have some evolved attributes as well. The conversation ends with the aliens (rather condescendingly, in my view) letting Kirk know that while humans are not advanced enough for them to deal with, maybe in a few thousand years we will have evolved enough for them to deal with us. (Of course, truly advanced aliens would have simply ignored Kirk and his adversary rather than set up a single combat situation, but then there'd be no show.)

The storyline is on the silly side, but it does bring up a question that's worth considering: where will we be in a thousand years? The pessimist can point to a host of societal ills and say that we haven't made a great deal of progress. The optimist can point to the relative worldwide peace of the past sixty years, and (in the U.S.) the substantial progress made in terms of societal treatment of women, blacks, gays, and other disadvantaged groups.

As for me, in general I'm more of an optimist than a pessimist. (Easy for me, though; I'm a white male born into a non-dysfunctional middle-class family, and have faced few real challenges in my life.) But I do think there's cause for optimism. Of course, we still have many problems that won't go away anytime soon, but I find it difficult to look at too many aspects of the world situation and find things that aren't better than they were fifty or a hundred years ago. Of course I don't mean material things, but rather bigotry, social consciousness, concern for the environment, and so on.

One thing that sadly has changed little is the fact that following one's self-interest is still the dominant social paradigm. Examples of this abound, and I'll probably be writing about them in the future, but the one that leaps to mind now is the drug problem. Everyone knows that Prohibition failed in the U.S. because too many Americans refused to give up drinking, and the money from alcohol sales went to organized crime. The repeal of Prohibition was a protective action, an attempt to slow down the mob's flow of money before they truly took over; America's freedom and democracy were in serious danger.

Five decades later, American consumption of cocaine reached levels at which many millions of dollars a year were being collected by the Colombian drug lords, and the situation in Colombia became desperate. Judges who sentenced drug cartel leaders were assassinated with regularity, the rule of law was seriously undermined, many police and others in law enforcement were on the mob's payroll. The cartel leaders ended up with enough resources to essentially build their own army, and a section of the country came under the de facto rule of the cartel. Did we end the prohibition of cocaine? No, because it wasn't our country that was being taken apart. Granted, cocaine is much more dangerous than alcohol, but I'm very sure that if our country was in such dire straits, it would have been seriously considered. Legalizing cocaine would cause relatively minor social problems in the U.S., and relieve huge ones in Colombia. But it isn't going to happen. Not in our self-interest.

A large part of this has to do with issues of nationalism, from which I believe no country is immune. To Americans, an American life is much more important than a Colombian one. Parity in this regard would be a huge step forward, but even I'm not optimistic that this will happen in the next few hundred years.

I tend to compare the history of humanity to the history of one person. We have childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and so on. Stages of life. We can also say that there are stages of civilization. Perhaps we could say that infancy ended with the emergence of homo sapiens, humans more or less as we are today. To have even reached that point, we had to fight our way up through evolution. Aggression and selfishness was rewarded; if you were passive or let the other guy eat first, you probably didn't live long enough for your genes to be passed on. But since civilization began, we've been (or should be) fighting the qualities that allowed us to survive in the first place. We haven't truly needed aggression and selfishness to survive for thousands of years, but we're stuck with them, at least for now. Will those genes slowly die out (now that passive and peaceful ones can also be passed on), allowing us to have something approaching a utopian society in a millennium, or two, or a dozen? I have no desire to live that long, even if I could, but I would be very interested to know.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sarah Palin and the brand new 2010 Death Panels

We get the government we deserve. This is a well-known phrase, and it's considered to be cynical. Even though it could mean that if we're good we deserve good government, it tends to be used only when someone is saying that the government sucks because the people suck.

As for me, I think it's true, and this is the way it should be. The government represents the people, and if the people are well-intentioned, well-informed, and reasonably intelligent, then the government will reflect this. If the people are selfish, ignorant, and stupid, then this too will be reflected in government. Isn't that the essence of democracy?

These days, people on the left have been gnashing their teeth over Sarah Palin's description of end-of-life counseling provisions in the evolving health care plan as 'death panels'. However, a recent poll showed that 45% of Americans believe that the health care proposal will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care to the elderly. I have to believe that this number would have been somewhat lower if the question had been asked before Palin's comment, but I suspect it would have gotten at least 20%, mostly the people who believe Obama wasn't born in America.

To the media's credit, it tended to correctly report that the idea of 'death panels' was false. To its discredit, it broadcast the false charge loudly and often, because it was an incendiary charge made by a politician who's better than anyone in America at getting both sides stirred up with her every utterance. (And, naturally, such things are good for sales, ratings, page views, etc.) Without the amplification of the mainstream media, the charge would have been picked up mainly by right-wing radio and Fox News. So, this is the problem: a lot of people don't read much further than the headlines, and if the headline didn't say it was false, then it might be true. This sort of thing is what makes advertising work. We might buy a new toothpaste based solely on the ad campaign. Now, if someone bought a new car based on no other information than the word of a car ad, car exec, or car salesman, we'd think they were gullible and/or stupid. Of course, you do research before making such a big purchase.

If government reflects its citizens, then this is as good an example as any. If every citizen read the news diligently, and carefully sorted out false charges from true information, the percentage of people who believed the 'death panels' charge would be 0%. But clearly, that does not happen. People like Palin who spread stuff like this know that, and they know the best way to exploit people's fear of change of this magnitude is to muddy up the waters with lies, the bigger the better. (And it's not as though Democrats have never done this; the Republicans are simply better at it.) But to me, in the end, the blame lies with the people: the correct information is out there, but many don't seek it. Many don't understand, or make any effort to understand, the distinction between the media reporting what someone said and reporting facts.

Now, people have busy lives, and I can understand why people don't want to come home from a hard day at work and pay close attention to what's true and what's not in the health care debate. But much as not researching a car before you buy it may lead to the purchase of an inferior car (or one unsuitable for your needs), the collective result of being ill-informed on a crucial government policy is the creation of one that at best is less than perfect, and at worst serves the interests of insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, doctors, and politicians more than it serves the interests of sick people.

Saturday, August 22, 2009


Everyone does what's in his or her own self-interest.

It seems to me that this is almost axiomatic and utterly uncontroversial. 'Duh, of course,' one might respond. But one thing I like to do is take an idea that seems like a given and try to unpack it. Why do we do that? Why do we take it as a given?

A more specific version of the above might be: it's perfectly acceptable to do what's in one's own self-interest as long as it causes no harm to others. I was prompted to consider this question about a year ago when I saw an article in the New York Times about Costco. The article said that Costco paid its workers a fair amount more than the industry average, and some investors were complaining about this. The gist of it was that if Costco paid the industry average, profits would increase, causing stock prices to increase, which would mean more money for the investors. Costco, they said, was not doing all it could to maximize profits, and the obligation of a publicly traded company was to do just that.

In this case, this blog entry's first sentence could be rephrased as: Everyone is perfectly entitled to do what is in his or her self interest even if it harms others, provided no law is broken. I believe that most traders would take this as a given. I would hope that most people in general would frown and consider the investors' attitude disgusting, but I'm not sure how public opinion would fall on this issue. After all, many people would probably do a similar thing in similar circumstances, or they would pay the going wage with no apology. It's just that in our daily lives, we don't get many opportunities to do what benefits us while seeing the harm it does to others. We can see the same thing in today's health-care debate. It's not hard to find Medicare recipients who are opposed to doing anything to change the current health-care system. Why? Because any change *might* change their current benefits, and they'd apparently rather that 45,000,000 people continued to go without health care than take the smallest chance that anything about their current system would change. Intelligent people say this publicly, names attached, apparently unashamed.

Of course, to an extent, acting on self-interest is natural; we wouldn't have risen up through evolution if we weren't programmed to do that. Millennia ago, being self-interested could mean the difference between life and death. Now, especially for those of us in Western societies who are middle-class or higher, we could easily afford to oppose our own self-interest for the common good, and many do. But there is still a culture in which it's perfectly fine to consider your own self-interest as more important than the common good, and politicians pander to those focused on their own self-interest rather than telling them to consider the needs of others.

My current feeling is that the things we got from evolution–aggression, competitiveness, self-centeredness–served us then and don't serve us now, but now that we're beyond the need for them, they're not that easy to get rid of. We might lose them if our civilization lasted thousands of years, as the lack of a survival-of-the-fittest mechanism helped breed not only the aggressive and self-interested, but I do wonder if we can make it that long. It seems to me that changing our culture is a lot like changing our character: something we do deliberately, that we consider important, and that we focus on strongly. If indulging in one's own self-interest when not absolutely necessary became a social evil rather than a cultural norm, petty indulgences in self-interest such as the Costco thing might go the way of racism: disappearing, though slowly. It takes time, and new generations. But first, we have to notice that something is wrong with it.

Costco apparently makes perfectly good profits while paying its workers enough to make a decent middle-class living. What's wrong with that? How did we get to a point in our society where this would be criticized? I wish the investors who complained would take a moment to think about that. I'm not holding my breath, though.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Japan, then and now

As I mentioned in the first post, I've been living in Japan for over 20 years. I don't intend for this blog to be Japan-centric, but Japan-related matters may come up from time to time. For example, a few weeks ago, a famous actress/singer was caught using a small quantity of amphetamines. In America, this would be a minor career detour requiring moderate damage control; in Japan, her career is widely considered to be over. Also, ten days from now, there will be a general election in Japan, the rules of which (for example, no TV commercials allowed) make for interesting comparisons to those in America. Japanese see these as routine events, viewed through their own cultural prism. As an American, I of course see them differently. (I'll probably be doing posts on both of those items in the not-too-distant future.) When I teach my students, I often give them my American perspective on these topics, to try to give them another way of looking at them.

The Japan that one sees by looking at the headlines is an economic powerhouse brought low; still powerful, but not what it once was. Many who follow economics and international affairs know that from the sixties to the eighties, Japan rose from the ashes of World War II to become the world's second-largest economy, aided by tireless toil from its workers and a cheap-import-happy America that didn't mind running huge trade deficits year after year. But their economy collapsed at the end of the eighties, or as they say here, the bubble burst. The end of the bubble economy was the beginning of substantial social change in Japan.

The thing one always needs to remember about Japan is that it's very much a group-based society; this has a profound impact on many aspects of the culture. The bursting of the bubble didn't destroy this, but it's made several cracks in the wall. There was a social contract in Japan: the government provided nearly-full employment, and in return, people obeyed the social norms. Men stayed at one company all their lives. Women got married by 25 and gave up their jobs to start families. Men worked until as late as the company demanded, often with no overtime pay, and didn't rock the boat. Promotions were decided by seniority, not by merit. Poor performers were only occasionally reprimanded, and definitely not fired. Graduates of top universities sought to work for the government, or top companies–not because of the opportunities for advancement, but for the stability. If you got one of those jobs, you were set for life.

Not anymore, though. The recession that started in 1990 caused the once-unthinkable to happen: slowly, painfully, companies began to lay off workers. The government ordered ('suggested', but it was the same thing) the banks to continue loans to what became known as 'zombie companies' because they were the walking dead. The purpose of this was to forestall the inevitable job losses caused by many bankruptcies, and the damage to the social order that this would bring. Well, the Japanese government discovered that you can only keep your thumb in the dike for so long.

I came to Japan in May 1989, and through my students have had a front-row seat to a society in transition, but a transition to what, even the Japanese don't know. To a country more like America, some hope and others fear. The social contract has been broken; Japanese no longer expect to work at one company all their lives, and there are fewer and fewer full-time jobs available for each year's crop of university graduates. More and more jobs, as in America, are being downgraded to part-time status so companies don't have to bear the extra expense of supporting health-care and other costs. An income gap is steadily growing in a country where twenty years ago, most everyone considered themselves to be middle-class. Quitting your job in search of a better one, formerly considered an act of terrible disloyalty, has now become commonplace.

Japan used to be, and still is, a group-based society. But those bonds are becoming looser and looser, this being visible in ways both large and small. People still value the group over the individual, and customs reflecting this persist. (I'll be commenting on them occasionally in the weeks and months ahead.) But the young–especially those who couldn't get the good jobs their equally capable fathers got–are starting to pull away, slowly and inexorably.

This is the broader social backdrop against which one should look at events that happen in Japan these days. Some things I may mention, such as the actress busted for drugs, shouldn't necessarily be viewed as part of this phenomenon: this might well have happened twenty years ago, with the same result. But the election probably will: the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (which local wags point out is neither liberal nor democratic) or LDP, which has been in power for almost all of the past fifty years, looks like it will finally be thrown out of power. Considering the degree of slow social disintegration of the past twenty years, the question is not why they may be removed from power: the question is why it took this long.

About this blog

I’ll introduce myself by saying that I go by the name ‘semprini’ (Monty Python geeks will understand) on the internet. I’m 46 years old, American, married 20 years, no kids. I grew up in the Bay Area, and I’m living in Tokyo, teaching English conversation to Japanese adults.

As blogs exploded in popularity over the past decade, occasionally someone I know would ask me if I’d ever write one. My automatic response was always, what would I say? What is there to say that I want to say enough to write it down regularly, and would it be interesting enough for people to want to read? Nothing came to me, so I put aside the notion.

During my working hours, my English teaching includes many hours of conversations with high-level students about all sorts of topics, including social, political, and cultural ones. Japanese culture is quite different from America’s, and I found that exploring the differences gave me a different perspective on my own culture. I would ask myself and my students, ‘why do Japanese do X’, but I would also wonder, ‘why do Americans do Y’, about which I’d never before wondered.

I found myself getting in the habit of analyzing why we do what we do: the individual forces that motivate us, and the social forces that shape and direct us. I would read a newspaper article and try to understand why things were happening as they were. For example, as I write this, President Obama is trying to get a health care bill passed, Congress is in recess, and at town hall meetings across the country, highly agitated citizens are showing up shouting, criticizing, and disrupting many of these forums. Obviously they can be considered right-wing agitators, doing anything they can to derail Obama’s plans, but many are clearly sincere in their belief that a ‘government takeover’ of health care will cause disaster, signify that socialism has arrived, and so forth. Many of these people are on Medicare or soon will be, and they strenuously resist any changes to that (government-paid and administered) program.

So, I can’t help but wonder: Why is one government medical program okay but another isn’t? Why are these people so emotional about this? Why do so many people believe that Obama’s program will create ‘death panels’ that will ‘pull the plug on grandma’ in the utter absence of any evidence that there’s any plan to do so? Why does the media not simply report that these rumors are false? Where do these people get their information, and what care do they take to make sure the information is accurate? Why don’t they take better care to avoid getting false information?

Some of these questions would appear to have easy answers (‘they watch Fox News’ covers some of them), but I tend to want to look deeper, into the psychological and social forces that encourage people to choose a news source that validates their beliefs at the expense of assisting their understanding of an issue.

I talk about these matters with my wife (who is also American) and sometimes with my students, but it occurred to me that writing out my thoughts might help focus my thinking, and who knows, the blog might find other people who have ideas and insights along these lines.

The blog will sometimes comment on politics, but won’t be written along partisan lines; the reader will get to know what I think about this or that issue, but also that I’m open to persuasion and intellectually honest discussion (trolls on either side will find their comments not posted). I’ll be commenting on social events; not to bash this person or that group, but to understand and examine why things happen the way they do. I’ll sometimes write about life in Japan and how it differs from America, for good or ill. And I may occasionally write about this or that from my life if I think it may be of interest to others. I’ll post as often as the mood hits me, so I encourage anyone interested to subscribe to the RSS feed. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you around.