Voodoo Abenomics

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Voodoo Abenomics

Post by bobalot » 2014-12-30 04:51pm

Voodoo Abenomics

Japan's Failed Comeback Plan

Richard Katz
RICHARD KATZ is Editor of the semiweekly The Oriental Economist Alert and the monthly The Oriental Economist Report, both reports on Japan.

Imagine the predicament currently facing a growing number of Japanese men in their early 30s. Despite having spent years cramming in high school and attending good colleges, many can’t find a full-time job at a good company. Since Japan’s rigid labor laws make it nearly impossible to lay off permanent employees in downtimes, companies now tend to fill open slots with part-time or temporary workers, and they typically pay them a third less. Today, 17 percent of Japanese men aged 25 to 34 hold such second-class jobs, up from four percent in 1988. Low-paid temps and part-timers now make up 38 percent of Japanese employees of all ages and both sexes -- a stunning figure for a society that once prided itself on equality.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to revive Japan when he took office in December 2012, and he often boasts of all the jobs he has added since. But all the gains have been for irregular work; regular jobs have fallen by 3.1 percent. Consequently, the average wage per worker in real terms has fallen by two percent under Abe. No wonder consumer spending is anemic. Imagine as well the frustration of these irregular workers when a low salary thwarts their natural desire to start a family. Whereas 70 percent of Japanese men in their 30s with regular jobs are married, among irregular workers in their 30s, that percentage plunges to just 25 percent.

What counts as a personal tragedy for each worker translates into an economic disaster for Japan as a whole. The country’s reliance on irregular workers eats away at its main resource: its human capital, meaning the skills that enable workers to use the most up-to-date technology and methods. Because irregular workers don’t acquire the skills employers seek, the longer they stay stuck in their dead-end jobs, the harder it becomes to ever get a regular one -- and the more human capital erodes. The low marriage rate among irregular workers accelerates Japan’s demographic decline. That, in turn, amplifies economic strains, such as the shrinking number of workers to support the growing ranks of retirees.

Given how much these interconnected syndromes lie at the core of Japan’s economic malaise, one would think they would also lie at the core of Abe’s revival strategy. Yet they merit not a mention. Abe has not even proposed minimal steps to tackle these problems, such as a law requiring companies to offer irregular workers equal pay for equal work. Until Japan reforms its labor practices more thoroughly, the use of so many irregular workers will continue to lend firms the flexibility they need to adjust payrolls as sales rise and fall. At the same time, equal pay for equal work would end the incentive for firms to replace regular jobs with irregular ones simply as a way of cutting wages.

Abe’s economic program is, at its core, a confidence game.
Instead, Abe’s economic program -- known as “Abenomics” -- is, at its core, a confidence game. Abe and his advisers argue that the root cause of Japan’s malaise is insecurity. If only Japanese had more faith in their country’s prospects, the theory goes, then consumers would spend more and companies would do more investing and hiring. In this view, deflation represents the primary cause of Japan’s woes. “For 20 long years of deflation, Japan suffered a deep loss of confidence,” Abe said in a speech last year.

To restore confidence, Abe has undertaken a program of what he calls “three arrows”: monetary easing to reverse deflation, fiscal stimulus to boost immediate spending, and structural reforms to revive long-term growth. If all three arrows were hitting their targets, there would be reason for bullishness. But two of the arrows have already flown wide: any stimulus from temporary spending has been more than offset by premature tax hikes made to cut government debt. Meanwhile, the prospects for structural reform have not progressed beyond vague sloganeering.

That leaves just one real arrow: monetary easing. But none of the three arrows can work without the other two. Confidence must rest on something more substantive than inflation: meaningful structural reforms to reverse Japanese companies’ lagging competitiveness. Otherwise, any temporary economic boost will soon give way to disillusion.

Disenchantment is already appearing in Japan’s stock market, which rose by 65 percent from Abe’s ascension until the end of 2013 -- almost entirely on buying by foreign investors -- but, as of early May, had lost a third of those gains as foreign investors sold. These investors rightly fear that Abe is not spending his political clout on reform. Since many Japanese voters view the stock market as the smart money’s verdict on revival, if jitters on the exchange continue, that could reduce Abe’s approval ratings and his political clout. If Abe is unwilling to take on vested interests to advance reform now, it is hard to see how he will be able to do so after his clout diminishes.

THE INFLATION BOGEYMAN

When Abe named him the new governor of Japan’s central bank in February 2013, Haruhiko Kuroda promised to deliver two percent inflation in just two years, and to create all the money needed to meet that goal. Abe and Kuroda claim to be well on their way. After all, in March, consumer prices were up by 1.3 percent from the year before.

Unfortunately, most of that increase stems from a 25 percent drop in the value of the Japanese yen, which raised prices on imports of everything from electronic gadgets to food to raw materials such as oil, as well as on products made from those imports. The devaluation effectively transfers income from Japanese consumers and firms to foreign oil sheiks, farmers, and manufacturers. Besides, since the yen has more or less stabilized, the inflationary effect of the depreciation is likely to ebb.

Suppose Kuroda were to achieve two percent inflation in two years -- which 34 of 36 economists polled by Bloomberg in April said will not happen. By itself, this would do little to boost growth. Kuroda contends that if consumers see prices rising, they will rush out to buy things so as to avoid paying more in the future, and their spending will lead firms to increase their investment and hiring. Yet data over the past decade show that when Japanese consumers expected prices to rise, they spent less, not more. The reason is simple: if prices rise faster than incomes, people can’t afford to buy as much. But Kuroda, devoted to abstract economic theories as he is, dismisses such evidence. Abe, in turn, likes the theory because it says that he can rejuvenate Japan via the easy route of printing money rather than the hard route of structural reform.

Sooner or later, Abe will lose the political power to make necessary reforms.
Since 1997, wages in Japan have fallen by nine percent in real terms. They are expected to continue falling, despite highly advertised wage hikes by a few hundred giant firms whose profits from overseas sales have been artificially boosted by the weaker yen. Abe claims that wages will rise once workers and firms come to expect inflation. In reality, deflation is not the cause of Japan’s problems but a symptom. Trying to cure Japan’s malaise by generating inflation is like trying to cure a fever by putting ice on the thermometer.

Abe and his team boast that they have pushed down the yen’s value vis-à-vis the dollar by 25 percent. But here, too, their optimism is misguided. Currency depreciation can cheapen the price of exports in overseas markets, helping a country export more. But the flip side is that imports become more costly, and in Japan’s case, the harm suffered by consumers and companies has vastly outweighed the benefits enjoyed by exporters. The real volume of exports -- tons of steel, number of cars, and so on -- has barely risen since the start of Abe’s term. Sony’s problem is not that the yen is overvalued but that the company is no longer creating the innovative products that people want (such as smartphones and tablets). Likewise, auto exports are flat because automakers continue to shift production offshore rather than exporting from Japan. The fact that Japan now runs a trade deficit despite a currency exchange rate that, in price-adjusted terms, is the cheapest since the 1970s, suggests that it has suffered a deep loss in underlying competitiveness. This requires a real cure, not a chimerical quick fix.

The second arrow, fiscal stimulus, was supposed to give people the money they needed to spend more. Either tax cuts or the right kind of spending could do the trick. Yet while Abe has put one foot on the gas pedal, he has put a heavier foot on the brake. His new spending measures, mostly of the pork-barrel variety, have been more than offset by his raising of the consumption tax from five percent to eight percent this past April. Another hike, to ten percent, is scheduled for October 2015. How can people spend more when Abe leaves them with less money to spend?

Abe’s team claims that fiscal austerity is necessary to prevent Japan from becoming the next Greek tragedy. But that is nothing but a scare story spread by officials such as Kuroda, who ought to know better. Once again, ideology is overriding evidence, due to the long-standing devotion to fiscal austerity on the part of the Ministry of Finance (where Kuroda spent virtually his entire career). In reality, foreign debt matters just as much as domestic debt in turning a manageable problem into a crisis. In Europe, the financial crisis hit only those countries saddled not just with lots of government debt but also with huge foreign debts caused by years of big trade deficits. These countries saw foreign lenders pull out their money, interest rates spike as a result, and their economies tank. Meanwhile, countries with equally big government debt but little or no foreign debt, such as Belgium, France, and Germany, suffered no crisis.

Japan’s long run of trade surpluses makes the country a huge net lender. Even if it runs a small trade deficit, its massive foreign exchange reserves are large enough to prevent capital from fleeing. Precisely because Japan finances its own government debt, the Bank of Japan has proved its ability to keep interest rates down, a fact Kuroda ignores when he counsels Abe that rates will skyrocket without austerity.

Most economists believe that Abe’s tax hike will hamper growth for a couple of years. And if Abe also cuts spending to meet the Finance Ministry’s goal of halving the budget deficit in two years, growth will suffer even more. Why go this route when Japan has time to fix its fiscal problems? Success requires not just doing the right things but also doing them at the right time and in the right order. Japan should first restore growth and then work on the deficit.

OUT WITH THE OLD

In the end, it is Abe’s third arrow -- structural reform -- that will determine whether Japan can raise its long-term real growth rate from the 0.8 percent average prevailing since 1992 to the two percent the prime minister has promised. Even Japanese government economists admit that without reform, the country’s long-term growth rate will never exceed around 0.5 to 1.0 percent. With the working-age population shrinking, the only way to generate more growth is to gain more productivity from each worker. Japan’s GDP per hour worked lags behind the average for rich countries by 25 percent. Yet the erosion of human capital caused by the rise of irregular workers makes raising productivity even harder.

To lift productivity, Japan needs serious structural changes to promote creative destruction, the process of replacing decaying firms with vibrant ones. The sectors of Japan’s economy that face international competition, such as the auto industry, enjoy high productivity. But the lion’s share of the economy is domestically oriented, and much of it is shielded from both international and domestic competition by domestic regulations and cartel-like business practices. In these sectors, Japan lags far behind its peers. To take one tiny but characteristic example, regulations currently restrict online sales of nonprescription drugs because if unrestricted, such sales would hurt brick-and-mortar pharmacies; one corporate member of an Abe advisory panel on reform quit when bureaucrats emasculated his proposal to lift this regulation.

Or look at Japan’s inefficient dairy industry, which the government has refused to open up to foreign competition -- holding up negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed free-trade deal among 12 countries, in the process. Japan’s milk market isn’t even open to domestic competition. The powerful farm cooperative known as Japan Agriculture uses its stranglehold on distribution to protect inefficient farmers in the main part of Japan by hindering shipments of milk from the larger, more efficient farms in the northern island of Hokkaido. Tokyo turns a blind eye because Japan Agriculture is a powerful electoral ally of Abe’s political party and because rural voters are disproportionately represented in the Diet. A real reformer would scrap Japan Agriculture’s exemption from the Antimonopoly Act, a law passed in 1947 designed to encourage competition, and use the act to crack down on such practices.

Japan needs an economy in which newcomers can edge out moribund firms, in which workers can move easily from job to job, and in which a solid safety net helps the unemployed through that transition. If reforms to create such an environment were put in place, now-lagging sectors would be propelled to world benchmark levels of efficiency, and productivity-led growth would soar -- just as occurred in retail, rust-belt manufacturing, and other traditional sectors in the United States during the productivity revolution that began in the mid-1990s. The United States does so well in information technology today because it boasts a fertile ecosystem for nurturing start-ups. When IBM flagged, Microsoft and Intel were ready to take its place, and when Microsoft started to coast, Google and Apple quickly stepped in. In Japan, however, there aren’t any successors to floundering Sony and Panasonic. The country’s list of the top 20 electronics hardware firms has not included a new company since 1946.

Rigidities in Japan’s labor market, as well as incestuous ties among Japan’s entrenched firms, all too often hinder would-be entrepreneurs from gaining the financing, staff, and distribution channels needed to compete. Yet firm turnover -- the exit or downsizing of inferior firms and the rise of better ones -- is as vital to economies as Darwinian natural selection is to evolution.

Abe could promote innovation by enforcing laws against anticompetitive practices, promoting genuine labor flexibility (rather than the use of irregular workers), and financing a solid safety net. Instead, he, like his predecessors, has moved in the opposite direction, promoting ill-fated mergers among troubled firms. Countries such as Sweden spend up to 1.5 percent of GDP on programs for ongoing adult education, job matching, and the like to help workers shift from job to job, but Abe’s fiscal austerity rules out similar steps. This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

THE POLITICS OF PRODUCTIVITY

If reform were easy, it would have been accomplished long ago. The problem is that reforms aimed at promoting competition would hurt many entrenched firms and their workers. Since a Japanese worker’s current job at his current firm is his main social safety net, a desire to avoid social dislocation is the main reason Japan protects moribund firms. To ease the pain of reform, Tokyo should use fiscal and monetary stimulus as an anesthesia.

In the past, Japan has enacted reforms that worked, such as deregulating the financial market, forcing resistant banks to clean up the massive nonperforming loans that were hamstringing economic growth, ending laws that allowed small stores to block the entry of larger ones into their neighborhoods, and giving new entrants in the cell-phone business equal access to the mobile infrastructure of a previously dominant monopoly. These reforms ushered in huge productivity gains in retail and telecommunications (and for users of telecom), while partially unlocking distribution channels for newcomers.

Nothing in Abe’s program, however, remotely resembles those advances. His proposed agricultural reform, for example, would merely replace a subsidy focused on production levels with one focused on income, while giving no incentives for tiny inefficient farms to consolidate or for agribusiness to expand sufficiently. His talk of increasing career opportunities for women omits any mention of the main obstacle: that most of them get taken off the promotion track once they become pregnant. And while Abe has raised taxes on consumers, he is talking about cutting taxes on corporations. His claim that this would promote investment is false, as even the Ministry of Finance acknowledges. Japan’s corporate giants already have far more cash than they choose to invest at home. But a corporate tax cut might raise stock prices and gain Abe more corporate support.

His plans for the electricity sector, meanwhile, would ostensibly allow room for newcomers by separating generation from transmission. In reality, the existing regional electric monopolies will be allowed to form a holding company that controls both parts. He has done nothing to force rectification in the nuclear utilities, some of which falsified their safety records with the connivance of the regulators in the lead-up to the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. As a result, a justifiably distrustful population has so far blocked a restart of the reactors that previously supplied a third of the country’s electricity. The resulting electricity shortfall and higher energy costs are propelling automakers and other efficient exporters to shift even more of their capacity overseas. All told, the third arrow has turned out to be nothing more than a bunch of nice-sounding goals for growth, job creation, and investment -- without a plan for achieving any of them.

The most obvious litmus test of the third arrow is Abe’s handling of the negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In recent months, these talks have stalled largely because Abe’s team has insisted on keeping tariffs and other barriers high in a few agricultural sectors (such as beef, dairy, and pork) that employ less than 100,000 households but where high prices boost Japan Agriculture’s income. As of mid-May, an agreement had not been reached. Even if a deal is eventually signed, Abe’s capitulation to small interest groups means that it won’t be used as a catalyst for domestic reform, unlike the way South Korea used its trade agreements with the United States and Europe, and as reformist officials in the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry have urged Japan to do as well.

Abe certainly has the clout to take on these vested interests: he still enjoys an approval rating around 60 percent, and his party holds an overwhelming majority in parliament. Yet it seems impossible to find a single case in which the prime minister has truly challenged a powerful domestic constituency. Instead, he is wasting his political capital on denying seven-decade-old war crimes and refusing even to admit that Japan committed aggression, claiming Japanese ownership of islets long controlled by South Korea, and trying to change school textbooks to reflect these retrograde views. Even when Abe’s ideas on security are sensible -- such as his proposals for Japan to exercise a right to collective self-defense -- the need to overcome resistance in pacifistic Japan diverts Abe’s energy. Inevitably, this puts the third arrow on the back burner.

The sad fact is that Abe’s heart does not beat to the rhythm of reform and revival. Instead, Abenomics is a means to an end: to gain enough popular support to pursue the goals that really move him -- security and history issues. But Abe can stay insulated from the political consequences of his economic mismanagement for only so long. Eighty percent of Japanese polled say that his policies have failed to improve their lives at all. Abe remains popular because people still expect Abenomics to start working. Sooner or later, however, its failures will become impossible to ignore, and Abe will lose the political power to make necessary reforms -- even if he somehow gained the stomach for them.

Japan will eventually reform and revive. Its tragedy is that it is filled with smart, ambitious, creative individuals who are trapped in once vibrant but now ossified political and economic institutions. The whole is so much less than the sum of its parts. The country will revive when it finally undertakes the necessary institutional overhaul. But that takes a visionary leader; Abe is not that leader.
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I have been following Abe and Japan with interest for a while now and it looks like he really hasn't accomplished that much. Monetary easing and stimulus packages (that he undermined by hiking the sales tax) are tinkering around the edges. He needs to reform labour law, break up the domestic cartels with more competition and increase female participation in the workforce (as the article states).
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Purple » 2014-12-30 05:18pm

Random question. What would happen if they just made it illegal to hire people part time? Not saying that it would work. But it's an obvious enough question that it's worth asking.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Broomstick » 2014-12-30 05:52pm

My WAG would be that will it would lead to a small increase in permanent positions many of the part time and temp workers would be completely out of work, and thus in even more dire straits.

A mass of desperate young men with nothing more to lose is very bad for social and government stability.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by mr friendly guy » 2014-12-30 06:03pm

@ Purple
I am going to guess Japanese companies will then expect their regular workers to work even more overtime and it becomes part of the "work culture."
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by J » 2014-12-30 07:22pm

Pushing on a rope doesn't work.
Neither does bailing water with a sieve.
Who could've known?

The worst part is the unintended consequences. I shall refer y'all to a post I made earlier this year.
http://bbs.stardestroyer.net/viewtopic. ... 0#p3827350

Since the writing of that post, everything has gone downhill; a structural trade deficit now exists, savings rates continue to fall, and all the problems mentioned in the articles continue to worsen. There is no fix without a comprehensive reform of labour laws, economic policies, societal values & expectations, and so on and so forth. And a full debt default of private, public, and financial sector debts would be nice too.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by mr friendly guy » 2014-12-30 11:53pm

With a quick google search it seems Jesper Koll is still optimistic about the Japanese economy. This guy self proclaims himself as one of the few Japanese (economy) optimists and notes sardonically that most of these optimists have gone the way of the dinosaurs. I sometimes wish I had this guys enthusiasm to tough it out, but then I think about how much frustration he feels when Japan's economy hasn't performed for the past few years, and in fact its GDP in nominal terms continues to shrink (largely due to depreciation of the Yen).

Back to the actual Abenomics, printing money didn't sound such a bad idea for Japan (using my limited knowledge). That's because I thought Japan was suffering from deflation, and inflation is generally better than deflation. Printing money should (if all other things stay equal) put inflationary pressure on the Japanese economy. Which would have produced consumption. Unfortunately it seems the Japanese workers didn't feel they were getting more money (as per the article due to sales tax hike) which has a larger negative impact on consumption than the "positive" impact from inflation.

Generally Abe is in a tough place given Japan's 2 decades of stagnation, but this article does raise some thoughts I also had. That is Abe is less interested in the economy and more interested in his pet security and historical revisionism subjects. Or to put it another way, the economic problem might not phase him as much as it should, because he is more interested in other stuff.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by KlavoHunter » 2014-12-31 12:35am

Imagine as well the frustration of these irregular workers when a low salary thwarts their natural desire to start a family. Whereas 70 percent of Japanese men in their 30s with regular jobs are married, among irregular workers in their 30s, that percentage plunges to just 25 percent.
That's deeply depressing to read.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by His Divine Shadow » 2014-12-31 01:41am

Skimmed it but it seems like the article saying making it easier to fire people with steady jobs will make more steady jobs for everyone, instead of leading to more fired people and then more insecure jobs for everyone, with only the rich profiting, which is all hidden under the word "flexibility" to make it sound less omnious. Maybe the problem isn't it's too hard to fire people but that people are opting for the wrong kinds of jobs and schools.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Guardsman Bass » 2014-12-31 02:55am

Purple wrote:Random question. What would happen if they just made it illegal to hire people part time? Not saying that it would work. But it's an obvious enough question that it's worth asking.
Making Part-Time/Temp work illegal would wipe out a lot of the small retail and restaurant joints, and probably hit many of the bigger companies hard as well. They'd hire marginally higher numbers of full-time workers simply because they'd have to (especially at the export-oriented firms), but you'd see many, many more Japanese workers (particularly women) being essentially forced out of work to depend on their parents longer (or do work in the black and gray markets for cash).

Increasing Japanese growth is just really hard right now, because the country is growing slowly while also showing many of the signs of being at "full employment": very low unemployment rate, rising labor force participation rate (especially women), and so forth. The only things that aren't moving much are GDP growth, productivity, and wages.
His Divine Shadow wrote:Skimmed it but it seems like the article saying making it easier to fire people with steady jobs will make more steady jobs for everyone, instead of leading to more fired people and then more insecure jobs for everyone, with only the rich profiting, which is all hidden under the word "flexibility" to make it sound less omnious.
It's mis-reading the situation. What Japan really needs is a lot more churn in its economy - new firms arising, older firms dying off - and far greater productivity growth overall. It's stuck in a bit of a bind in that regard, because the same reforms that might help to create that churn also threaten the livelihoods and security of the increasingly large older segment of Japan.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Grumman » 2014-12-31 03:00am

His Divine Shadow wrote:Maybe the problem isn't it's too hard to fire people but that people are opting for the wrong kinds of jobs and schools.
That is not the problem - people are doing the jobs that employers want, they're just getting screwed over when doing it. The problem appears to be that employment law rewards the employers for expanding the wrong level of employment. Until the Japanese economy becomes so efficient that 20 hours of labour can adequately support a household, employment law should not reward hiring two 20 hour part-time employees instead of one 40 hour full time employee, and certainly should not reward hiring irregular workers instead of creating a stable employee-employer relationship where the employee can rely on their paycheck and become more skilled at their job.

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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by K. A. Pital » 2014-12-31 05:59am

Guardsman Bass wrote:What Japan really needs is a lot more churn in its economy - new firms arising, older firms dying off - and far greater productivity growth overall.
Does Japan really need that?

What would this even accomplish (other than hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people employed in Japan's techno-feudal system via the lifetime employment scheme losing jobs and being completely unable to fit anywhere)?

What do you mean by the nonsense 'productivity' talk so typical among Western economists who often are completely clueless about the state of affairs in Japan - you mean the Japanese need to work longer hours? I bet many would say 'thanks but no thanks' as the working hours were and still are atrociously long - despite the slight downward trend in the recent decade, and it is still far from normal. Japan's work-life balance is horrendous, it's system of overwork often leads people to their very deaths after 14-hour or 16-hour days several times in a row, and you are saying they need to be 'more productive'? As for labour-saving technology, Japan has the cream of the crop there. It is a very capital-intensive economy, almost all hand-work is already automated to a far greater degree than in the West, which still has sweatshops arising here and there. It is also the least-active capital exporter among the developed economies.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Thanas » 2014-12-31 09:13am

I agree with the vast majority of the article except on one point - opening the agriculture sector to foreign competition would be disastrous. You can see that in Africa, where the European Union has pretty much crushed the milk competition. Without a protective trade barrier for the domestic industry to adjust, European suppliers will just crush Japan.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Zixinus » 2014-12-31 09:18am

I take it that many of these well-educated men that are unable to find work cannot leave the country to find work elsewhere? Any particular reason why?
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by mr friendly guy » 2014-12-31 09:42am

How many Japanese men as a percentage can speak another language proficiently and hence work in an international company or a foreign one? I know Europe has a tendency for a lot of its citizens to be multilingual, but not sure about elsewhere. And when I say multilingual, I mean not just say a few words or understand the gist of a conversation in another language, but hold a proper conversation.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Thanas » 2014-12-31 09:46am

Zixinus wrote:I take it that many of these well-educated men that are unable to find work cannot leave the country to find work elsewhere? Any particular reason why?
Because Japanese foreign language education is really, really bad.

Anecdote time:
I once met a professor (!) from Tokyo University law school who was (ostensibly) doing a research semester in Germany. I was assigned to chaperone him to a meeting. Why did he need a chaperone? Because the dude couldn't understand a word of German or English. Heck, even telling him the way was impossible. I don't even know how he did any research.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Simon_Jester » 2014-12-31 10:31am

Stas Bush wrote:
Guardsman Bass wrote:What Japan really needs is a lot more churn in its economy - new firms arising, older firms dying off - and far greater productivity growth overall.
Does Japan really need that?

What would this even accomplish (other than hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people employed in Japan's techno-feudal system via the lifetime employment scheme losing jobs and being completely unable to fit anywhere)?

What do you mean by the nonsense 'productivity' talk so typical among Western economists who often are completely clueless about the state of affairs in Japan - you mean the Japanese need to work longer hours? I bet many would say 'thanks but no thanks' as the working hours were and still are atrociously long - despite the slight downward trend in the recent decade, and it is still far from normal. Japan's work-life balance is horrendous, it's system of overwork often leads people to their very deaths after 14-hour or 16-hour days several times in a row, and you are saying they need to be 'more productive'? ...
Actually, if you read the article, you will note that Japan's productivity is about 3/4 of that in most of the rest of the developed world. What this means is that each hour of a Japanese worker's labor is, on average, producing about 3/4 as much cash value as an hour of the average European or American's labor.

So no wonder they're brutally overworked! They'd have to work fifty-three hour weeks just to have the same overall per capita economic output as a western country that works forty hour weeks!

Productivity, in the context of capitalist economics, does not mean "how much this worker produces." It means "how efficiently." The article is arguing that for the Japanese economy to improve, its workers should become more efficient. I would argue that even without growth, they need to become more efficient, because then they won't 'need' to work such stupidly long hours.

Here is the way I see it. If an eight-hour shift that takes advantage of computerization can replace a ten-hour shift that doesn't use it, that's good. Then we've made real, material progress even if "growth" does not occur... But this still requires economic change and cannot occur under conditions of stasis or willful inefficiency.

Therefore, it is still necessary to find ways to avoid wastes of labor, job activities that are economically unproductive and therefore either reduce the amount of useful work that can be done per day, or (the Japanese solution) force the worker to toil for longer than would otherwise be necessary.
As for labour-saving technology, Japan has the cream of the crop there. It is a very capital-intensive economy, almost all hand-work is already automated to a far greater degree than in the West, which still has sweatshops arising here and there. It is also the least-active capital exporter among the developed economies
Meanwhile, your post here tends to validate Starglider's accusations a month or two back that you are... to strip out the insulting bits, shall we say "too focused on heavy industry?"

The physical production of goods in large industrial facilities in Japan is very automated and relatively efficient. However, trade and the service sector make up three quarters or so of the Japanese economy! Precisely because their manufacturing sector is so efficient, it consumes relatively little of the Japanese people's time, and far more of their time and energy is devoted to "white-collar work" pursuits: the service sector.

Moreover, the stereotypical desperately overworked Japanese is not a factory worker; he is a white-collar corporate employee: a "salaryman," to translate the Japanese term. Because white-collar work does not entail physical exhaustion, a culture has arisen of making white-collar workers work for longer hours. This has partly compensated for the fact that these salarymen and other white-collar employees are being employed inefficiently, to do things in ways that take more time and labor than is necessary.

Thus, what Japan critically needs, which you did not even seem to understand, is to improve the practices and efficiency of its white collar employment. Not its manufacturing, its service sector. Those 12 and 14 and 16-hour days are not, hour for hour, getting as much done as an equivalent number of work hours accomplish in the West, in other words... which is precisely why the Japanese have to overwork themselves so hard to do what the West does.

Increased efficiency in the service sector is therefore desirable. Even if this does not produce growth in the overall economy and the wealth available per capita to the Japanese people, it can still have the desirable effect of allowing Japanese workers to work less hard and still achieve the same result.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by K. A. Pital » 2014-12-31 01:26pm

Wait a moment. The so-called 'lost decades' in Japan when their economic growth was nil... you know the other effect? Their working hours went down for the very first time. Are you sure you understand my position?
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Fingolfin_Noldor » 2014-12-31 01:33pm

Korea and Japan pretty much take top prize for long work hours in the world. Really. I don't know if you can make things any worse, because all that does is drive up the suicide rate. Japan's suicide rate is the highest, and I don't think Korea is that far behind. It's like saying "Goodbye Cruel World and the Long Work Hours!"

I mean, this is the one country in the world that lost interest in sex, marriage etc. because the people are worked to the death!
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Simon_Jester » 2014-12-31 02:11pm

Well.

Put it this way. I approve of either economic growth in Japan or diminishing work hours brought about by increasing worker efficiency. But the word for the latter in capitalist economics is "productivity," it is not a sum of total production but a measure of production per hour. Stas appeared unaware of this, because he said "Make things more productive? Ignorant Westerner! They already work the longest hours in the world as it is!" Which is nonsensical. Likewise for Stas to say "They already are the cream of the crop in manufacturing!" is irrelevant, when a supermajority of their economy is service-sector.

What would, most likely, be healthiest for the Japanese people is to improve productivity and the efficiency with which the workforce is utilized. This is necessary both to reduce hours worked per employee and because their population is getting older, requiring that more nonproductive retirees be supported per productive worker.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by J » 2014-12-31 02:44pm

I think some people are missing the point. Rather than asking what Japan has as its long term goals and what changes (if any) are needed to get there, it's implicitly stated that productivity growth, managed inflation, and the usual Western policies are the cure for all their ills. But what if it isn't? What if the things they want & value are not what we think they are?
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Simon_Jester » 2014-12-31 02:56pm

I am partially at least in agreement with this.

GDP growth outpacing inflation would be nice (because Japan will need more money to pay for its swarms of retirees). Work hours declining would be as good if not better.

But economic stasis is almost certainly bad for Japan right now, because people are working themselves half to death, growth isn't happening, and a growing share of the population is falling between the cracks of the old "lifetime employment" model.

While they may value different things and pursue strategies a typical Western nation wouldn't consider, they do need some strategy for resolving their current issues.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by K. A. Pital » 2014-12-31 03:31pm

Simon_Jester wrote:Stas appeared unaware of this, because he said "Make things more productive? Ignorant Westerner! They already work the longest hours in the world as it is!" Which is nonsensical.
It is not 'nonsensical' as it has been a key theory advanced by the neoliberal theorists: longer working hours as key to improving total, national productivity, 'industrious revolution' versus 'industrial revolution' and so on and so forth. Japan's services cannot easily become 'more productive' in the sense of improving the input-to-output ratio, as the service sector automation is a very poorly defined goal, unlike the automation of regular industrial operations.

It is not 'nonsensical' as the current theory pushed forward by Japan's elites and their Western 'advisors' is the mass induction of women into the workforce without radically rethinking the Japanese labour culture - meaning basically increasing labour inputs through the same method as the bolsheviks (who, of course, did it during the initial industrialization phase and during a global war, when it made way more sense). Now, what do you think will this do with their work-life balance? Improve it?

The solution proposed by Guardsman Bass (collapse of existing Japanese companies with their lifetime employment models, rise of new companies) completely ignores the fact that this will massively disrupt the lives of the workers first and foremost. It will not make them work less.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Civil War Man » 2014-12-31 04:30pm

Simon_Jester wrote:Actually, if you read the article, you will note that Japan's productivity is about 3/4 of that in most of the rest of the developed world. What this means is that each hour of a Japanese worker's labor is, on average, producing about 3/4 as much cash value as an hour of the average European or American's labor.

So no wonder they're brutally overworked! They'd have to work fifty-three hour weeks just to have the same overall per capita economic output as a western country that works forty hour weeks!

Productivity, in the context of capitalist economics, does not mean "how much this worker produces." It means "how efficiently." The article is arguing that for the Japanese economy to improve, its workers should become more efficient. I would argue that even without growth, they need to become more efficient, because then they won't 'need' to work such stupidly long hours.
Just a thought to consider: are they overworked because they are inefficient, or are they inefficient because they are overworked? Because considering the number of hours people are talking about, I can see chronic worker fatigue being a major contributor to lower efficiency.

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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Guardsman Bass » 2014-12-31 05:19pm

Stas Bush wrote:Does Japan really need that?
Yes, they do. They've got an aging population and an unwillingness to countenance greater immigration, so they need rising productivity if they don't want overall living standards to drop and the net tax burden to go up in order to support all their retirees.
Stas Bush wrote: What would this even accomplish (other than hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of people employed in Japan's techno-feudal system via the lifetime employment scheme losing jobs and being completely unable to fit anywhere)?
You realize most new jobs are created by expanding new firms, right? What it would do is not only boost the output of goods and services in Japan, but actually give more of Japan's population a chance (particularly its younger population) at higher wages and wealth. As the article mentioned, tons of them are ending up as temps for years in the much lower productivity domestic economy - and the vaunted Life Employment system has been slowly disintegrating anyways.
Stas Bush wrote: What do you mean by the nonsense 'productivity' talk so typical among Western economists who often are completely clueless about the state of affairs in Japan - you mean the Japanese need to work longer hours? I bet many would say 'thanks but no thanks' as the working hours were and still are atrociously long - despite the slight downward trend in the recent decade, and it is still far from normal. Japan's work-life balance is horrendous, it's system of overwork often leads people to their very deaths after 14-hour or 16-hour days several times in a row, and you are saying they need to be 'more productive'? As for labour-saving technology, Japan has the cream of the crop there. It is a very capital-intensive economy, almost all hand-work is already automated to a far greater degree than in the West, which still has sweatshops arising here and there. It is also the least-active capital exporter among the developed economies.
Higher productivity means they won't have to sacrifice living standards and countenance a higher tax burden as long as they continue to both refuse greater immigration and have an aging population. It means they'll actually be materially more well-off in qualitative and quantitative terms, especially among the young. And god willing, it means they'll finally no longer have people working insane amounts of unpaid overtime in unproductive jobs when they could actually be doing productive work elsewhere.

As for productivity and automation now, go outside of automation-heavy export sector. It's not particularly impressive, particularly in sectors like retail.
Thanas wrote:I agree with the vast majority of the article except on one point - opening the agriculture sector to foreign competition would be disastrous. You can see that in Africa, where the European Union has pretty much crushed the milk competition. Without a protective trade barrier for the domestic industry to adjust, European suppliers will just crush Japan.
That's what article was talking about. They don't even allow the larger milk producers within their own country to sell milk in Honshu. If they allowed farms to consolidate more and buy out many of the unproductive small farms, they could not only make their agriculture more competitive world-wide, but greatly lower food costs for Japanese consumers. I went to a few Japanese super-markets while I was over there on a trip - the price of rice alone is incredibly high (not coincidentally, rice production is both the heaviest protected agricultural commodity in Japan in terms of tariffs, as well as being produced among scattered small farms).
Stas Bush wrote:The solution proposed by Guardsman Bass (collapse of existing Japanese companies with their lifetime employment models, rise of new companies) completely ignores the fact that this will massively disrupt the lives of the workers first and foremost. It will not make them work less.
I'm calling bullshit on that. If they've got more churn and competition in the economy, then that means companies will be less willing to have their employees sit around doing little productive work for 14 hours a day - and employees will be less willing to stick around to do that if they're no longer afraid that quitting a Lifetime Employment job will make their name mud and hinder them from getting another one.
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Re: Voodoo Abenomics

Post by Simon_Jester » 2014-12-31 05:55pm

Civil War Man wrote:Just a thought to consider: are they overworked because they are inefficient, or are they inefficient because they are overworked? Because considering the number of hours people are talking about, I can see chronic worker fatigue being a major contributor to lower efficiency.
Oh, easily.

Especially if those twelve hour shifts are actually spent engaged in intensive work, rather than having a significant fraction of it spent on loafing off in one way or another.
Stas Bush wrote:
Simon_Jester wrote:Stas appeared unaware of this, because he said "Make things more productive? Ignorant Westerner! They already work the longest hours in the world as it is!" Which is nonsensical.
It is not 'nonsensical' as it has been a key theory advanced by the neoliberal theorists: longer working hours as key to improving total, national productivity, 'industrious revolution' versus 'industrial revolution' and so on and so forth.
Said theorists are not using the word "productivity" in its normal sense in economics. Confusion about what the word means is excusable, but as a brute fact, saying "Japanese workers are less productive" is NOT the same as saying "it is good that the Japanese work long hours, and they should work even longer if possible."
Japan's services cannot easily become 'more productive' in the sense of improving the input-to-output ratio, as the service sector automation is a very poorly defined goal, unlike the automation of regular industrial operations.
This is nonsense. There are numerous examples of white collar jobs that can be automated, or in most cases made more productive (much as one farmer with access to the right machinery can do the work of ten or twenty who lack such machinery).

For example, the article points out that Japan restricts online sales of non-prescription drugs to protect physical pharmacies. But if the online sales involve fewer hours of labor to get aspirin to consumers... this represents a waste of labor. Certain people are working long hours as a pharmacy clerk, when there is no social need for them to do so, because the same need could be met just as well by a less labor-intensive system. Taken to extremes, this is absurd and needlessly brutal to the people. Just as it would be to employ people as ditch-diggers under back-breaking conditions when a couple of men with a backhoe could do the same job in a fraction of the time.

There are numerous minor examples of this. If anything it is precisely because it's hard to define a simplistic "this is what it means to use automation and better management practices to improve efficiency" that it's important to give people an incentive to find ways to use man-hours more efficiently to achieve the same result for less work, or greater results with the same work.
It is not 'nonsensical' as the current theory pushed forward by Japan's elites and their Western 'advisors' is the mass induction of women into the workforce without radically rethinking the Japanese labour culture - meaning basically increasing labour inputs through the same method as the bolsheviks (who, of course, did it during the initial industrialization phase and during a global war, when it made way more sense). Now, what do you think will this do with their work-life balance? Improve it?
It is clearly nonsense to think that Japan of all places needs to improve their lot economically purely by working harder. If women want to work rather than purely acting as passive housewives, well and good- Japan is a place that could use a nice, large dose of feminism.

But clearly, if it takes forty man-hours of Japanese labor to produce the same results as thirty man-hours of French labor, the Japanese are doing something wrong. And since Japan is not a nation with a great surplus of laborers in need of more hours' worth of work, whatever is being done wrong will have bad consequences for the Japanese people.
The solution proposed by Guardsman Bass (collapse of existing Japanese companies with their lifetime employment models, rise of new companies) completely ignores the fact that this will massively disrupt the lives of the workers first and foremost. It will not make them work less.
Perhaps the companies should not be destroyed- but they need change. Stasis and the enforced locking-in of twentieth century business practices is not the answer.

Some solution needs to be created, and to be effective in a nation with a shrinking number of laborers per capita, it must improve the productivity of Japanese labor- not the quantity of that labor, but the quality, the output per hour worked per person.
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