Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Abdicating responsibility

The government has submitted its bill extending the temporary gasoline tax for ten years as part of its bill related to the revision of the tax system. It is not clear, however, whether the government will give up on finding a compromise with the opposition and push for passage before the end of the month, giving it time to pass the bill again in HR over HC objections.

In the background of the bill's submission, some 500 prefectural assembly members — mostly LDP, with nineteen DPJ members (and three DPJ HC members) — met at the Kensei Kinenkan in Nagatacho to demand the retention of the special fund for road construction and to insist that the Diet pass the extension before the end of the fiscal year. The issue is the DPJ's proposal to shift funding for road construction to the general fund, meaning that the prefectures and the "road tribe" advocates in the LDP would have to compete with every other interest group to secure funding for their projects of choice.

And this is a bad thing? It seems obvious to me that in a period of tight budgets, when the nation has to make tough decisions about priorities and what deserves money, road construction should not be given special preferences, especially considering that Japan's road needs are not what they once were. Arguably, the steady flow of money into rural construction projects is an impediment to developing creative solutions to the rural problem. Are the residents of rural areas actually served by the construction of roads, or are the "interests of the people" used as window dressing for a system that enriches LDP members, bureaucrats, and construction companies? As this Asahi article makes clear, the LDP's rhetoric in this debate focuses on how the loss of the extra tax revenue will impact communities. I hope the DPJ will show, again and again, how this entitlement, like many entitlement programs, has had perverse consequences, hindering the development of rural areas rather than enhancing it.

According to a DPJ survey of the heads and deputy heads of its prefectural chapters, there is broad support for the DPJ's position on this issue, but as usual it needs to do a better job presenting its opposition to the public. As asked by the head of the Kochi prefectural chapter in response to the party survey, "Although this is an election in which a government will be chosen, is it good to focus the debate on a price reduction of 25 yen (per liter of gas)?" This issue alone will not sink the government. The task for the DPJ in advance of a possible general election is to make a coherent case condemning the failed governance of the LDP. The temporary tax should be but one plank in that case — it should not be the whole of the DPJ's case.

If the DPJ formulates its position carefully, it can change the debate from one that pits urban against rural into one that unites all Japanese against the government, pointing to how the government has substituted money for creative policy making, in the process abdicating its responsibility to lead and provide a secure future for all citizens. This debate shouldn't just be about the extra yen paid into government coffers. The DPJ should use this issue to indict the LDP for failing to adjust the nation's spending priorities in a period of both tight budgets and urgent policy needs.

1 comment:

tornados28 said...

Japan does not need new roads. Except for a very few cities or locations that are seeing increased traffic, most of Japan has a shrinking population so less traffic. They don't need new roads.

What a waste of money.