Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The age of austerity?

At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the Aso government reported that the five trips abroad Aso Taro took in the first five months of his government have cost Japan approximately 660 million yen. From September 2008 to January 2009, Aso went to New York to attend the opening of the UN general assembly (three days), Beijing for ASEM (two days), Washington, D.C. for the G20 meeting on the economic crisis (three days), Peru for the APEC summit (three days), and South Korea for a summit with President Lee Myung-bak (two days). (I recognize that counting days is difficult due to time spent in transit; I'm simply going by the prime minister's calendar.)

That comes to approximately 50.7 million yen per day of travel by the prime minister, or stimulus payments to 4200 citizens.

This figure does not include the prime minister's jaunt to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos (two days), his trip to Sakhalin (one day), and his Washington visit (two days), which have yet to be tabulated.

I think that given the state of Japan's finances, the Japanese people have a right to know what exactly they're getting for their money, other than the intangible sense that Japan still matters in the world.

But I think this is less a matter for Japan — after all, Japan can hardly be expected to stay away from the aforementioned summits — than for all countries, the developed countries in particular. What purpose does all this summitry serve? Did the G8 hosted by Japan last year accomplish anything that merited the expense to Japanese taxpayers? Will the G8 summit to be hosted by Italy later this year top that? Did last year's G20 meeting in Washington accomplish anything, and will the forthcoming meeting in London be any more effective? It bears asking whether all of this talking is worth the greenhouse gas emissions and the money for increasingly cash-strapped governments. (How much has Aso alone emitted in his travels?) I recognize that there is value in leaders meeting face to face, but just how much value, and are there substitutes for leaders jetting around the world as frequently as Aso has in his six months in office?

As Sam Roggeveen suggests at The Interpreter, austerity is in, at least when it comes to Barack Obama's meetings with foreign leaders.

All of this may be wishful thinking: what incentive do leaders — and the journalists who cover them — have to give up their foreign trips?

Nevertheless, it bears asking whether the prime minister and his counterparts should be free to travel at will or whether their itineraries should be vetted by the publics who pay their travel expenses. At the very least, Aso's appearance at Davos this year ought to be the last by a Japanese prime minister, if it was not the last WEF meeting altogether.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

"...after all, Japan can hardly be expected to stay away from the aforementioned summits — than for all countries.."

You think 50.7million Yen per day is not worth mentioning?

Durf said...

"Austerity is in" perhaps, when you're talking about the kind of gifts Obama is giving to other leaders, but you'd have to be crazy to think that a flight anywhere in Air Force One is any cheaper than what Japan pays to fly its two jumbo jets around the world to take the prime minister overseas. Having accompanied the Japanese PM on overseas trips a couple times for work, I'm frankly surprised the costs are so low, given the number of people pulled out of MOFA and the Kantei to accompany him, the cost of the ASDF crews, the fuel charges, and on and on. At least the planes land at Haneda instead of Narita, thereby avoiding the extortionate landing fees out in Chiba . . .

Tobias Harris said...

Durf,

You'll note that I'm not singling out Japan for these costs. This is, or should be, a global discussion about whether these meetings are worth the costs that go into them.

I'm only discussing Japan because, well, the news that broke was about Japan's expenses.

Anonymous,

You'll notice that I do think that it bears mentioning. Why else would I write the post and suggest that the public should scrutinize the official travel expenses?

To address the quote you singled out, as long as Japan has pretenses to global importance, Japan has no choice but to bear the expenses of attending global meetings, however futile they are. It is perfectly reasonable to ask whether Japan should still aspire to global importance — a debate I suspect Japan will have sooner or later — but until that debate the Japanese government has to keep up with the summiting Joneses.

Tim said...

Having 'the public' somehow vet travel is completely unworkable. Having an auditor general post with some teeth sounds better but pretty hard to imagine. I fully agree about accountability. Many politicians live in a nicely cocooned bubble completely detached from the real lives of people and this detachment is highly problematic for 'democracy.' Now one can wonder if Japan is a democracy or more of a oligarchy but that is another discussion. Do Japanese want 'democracy' is a question I sometimes wonder about.

An interesting tidbit was reported today concerning travel by the good representatives of the US of A and it seems that they like to use military/ pentagon aircraft to jet here and there. They wagged accusing fingers at the shrinking Detroit 3 CEOs but they do the same thing and with family members. Pardon my Scottish upbringing but since when is it bad form to fly commercial? Nancy P. and company afraid of actually meeting real live citizens? How horrible would that experience be ... I shudder to think. Actions speak louder than empty words.

Tobias Harris said...

Tim,

You're correct: public is too imprecise.

For public read some combination of a press that actually monitors what officials — elected and unelected — do; a Diet able to ask questions and demand answers regarding the use of public funds (and other matters, of course); as you say auditors "with teeth;" and a general public that casts off the attitude that politics is a spectator sport and takes a greater interest in how the country is governed in good times and bad.

This all sounds terribly idealistic, but to be cliched, democracy is a journey, not a destination. Every little step in the right direction is worthwhile.

I'm wholly in agreement with you about the privileges enjoyed by democratic representatives on both sides of the Pacific and elsewhere. Let them eat airline peanuts. (Or rather, as things stand today, let them pay $4.95 to eat airline peanuts.)

B.F. said...

I have no problem with world leaders meeting face to face. The thing I find hard to swallow, is that absolutely nothing productive comes of these meetings.
Save the Yen, save the dollars, and have some videoconferences. Once the world economy recovers, Aso and Obama can kissy-face all they want.

B.F. said...

I have no problem with world leaders meeting face to face. What I find hard to swallow, is that absolutely nothing is accomplished at these summits.

Save a Yen, save a dollar, hold some videoconferences. After the world economy recovers, Aso and Obama can kissy-face all they want.

Winchester whisperer said...

And what about the cough medicine expenses?

former DPJ member said...

The opportunity cost of leaders' time is a stronger argument for vetting economic summits than CO2 emissions. Some other kinds of travel emit CO2 while harming global welfare directly, e.g., sex tourism and wars of choice.